Libretto by Franceso Maria Piave, based on the play Le Roi s’Amuse by Victor Hugo
Premiere: Teatro la Fenice, Venice, 1851
Rigoletto is a journey of undeniable force that commands the respect of critics, performers, and audiences alike. It was immensely popular from its premiere— from even before its premiere, if we credit accounts of the buzz that surrounded the initial rehearsals—and remains fresh and powerful to this day. The story is one of the most accessible in opera, based on a controversial Victor Hugo drama whose full dramatic implications only became apparent when transformed by Verdi’s musical genius. Rigoletto is the tale of an outsider—a hunchbacked jester—who struggles to balance the dueling elements of beauty and evil that exist in his life. Written during the most fertile period of Verdi’s remarkable career, the opera resonates with a universality that is frequently called Shakespearean.
The Creators Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901) composed 28 operas during his 60 active years in the theater, at least half of which are at the core of today’s operatic repertoire. His role in Italy’s cultural and political development has made him an icon in his native country, and he is cherished the world over for the universality of his art. Francesco Maria Piave (1810–1876) was his frequent librettist; he eventually collaborated on ten operas with Verdi. The librettist’s work has not earned him great respect from critics, but he was an able theater professional and he exhibited legendary patience with Verdi’s frequent and detailed demands. In judging Piave’s libretti for Verdi, we should remember that Verdi often demanded that his partner find the exact "parola scenica," that is, the right "stage word." This tells us that Verdi often valued words for their acoustical rather than their syntactical value, an important consideration when we judge the libretto.
Victor Hugo’s 1832 play Le Roi s’Amuse was set at the court of King Francis I of France (circa 1520) and was a blatant depiction of depraved authority. In adapting it, Verdi and Piave fought incessantly with the Italian censors in a well-documented battle. It makes for interesting reading, particularly in revealing what Verdi found important in the story and what he considered superfluous. Though Verdi had no love of royalty and favored a republic, he was not a proletarian ideologue like Hugo, and he tended to view people more as individuals than as representatives of classes. He was content, with Piave’s deft juggling, to set the opera at the non-royal Renaissance court of Mantua and to change all the names, but held firm on other issues in the story, such as the protagonist’s visible deformity and the curse that is the catalyst of the drama. The Met’s new production by Michael Mayer reimagines the action in 1960 Las Vegas, a modern-day setting that aptly captures the opera’s atmosphere of decadence and fascination with power, money, and beauty.
Rigoletto contains a wealth of melody, including one that is among the world’s most famous: "La donna è mobile." The opera’s super-familiar hits—"Questa o quella" and "Caro nome," for example—are also rich with character insight and dramatic development. The heart of the score, though, lies in its fast-moving subtleties and apt dramatic touches. The baritone’s solo narratives "Pari siamo!" (Act I, Scene 2) and "Cortigiani, vil razza dannata" (Act II) are epic scenes telescoped to less than four minutes each. Not even Wagner’s great monologues cover more territory than these, and certainly not within Verdi’s economy of means. The celebrated father–daughter duets also reflect Verdi’s overall design. Rigoletto sings of his protective love for Gilda in Act I, Scene 2 in a spun-out phrase of simple, honest melody, while her music decorates his. In their subsequent scene in Act II, Gilda’s music (and, by implication, her life) is similarly intertwined with that of Rigoletto, until finally her melody breaks away as she strives to declare her adolescent independence. The famous quartet "Bella figlia dell’amore" (Act III) is an ingenious musical analysis of the diverging reactions of four characters in the same moment: the Duke’s music rises with urgency and impatience, Gilda’s droops with disappointment, Rigoletto’s remains measured and paternal, while the promiscuous Maddalena is literally all over the place. In the context of the opera, the merely lovely music becomes inspired drama.
Rigoletto at the Met
Rigoletto was first heard at the Met within one month of the company’s inaugural performance, on November 16, 1883. The 1903–04 season opened with the company debut of Enrico Caruso as the Duke—a role he went on to sing a total of 38 times before his untimely death in 1921. The impressive list of tenors who made their first Met appearance in this role also includes Giacomo Lauri-Volpi (1923), Giuseppe Di Stefano (1948), Alfredo Kraus (1966), Giacomo Aragall (1968), Piotr Beczala, and Joseph Calleja (both 2006). The opera’s monumental title role was owned for many years by the elegant Italian baritone Giuseppe De Luca, who sang it 96 times between 1916 and 1940. This was surpassed more recently by the great Cornell MacNeil, who amassed 102 performances between 1959 and 1980. Bronx native and audience favorite Roberta Peters sang Gilda 88 times between 1961 and 1985. A new production by Herbert Graf in 1951 featured Hilde Gueden, Richard Tucker, and Leonard Warren. John Dexter directed a new staging in 1977, with James Levine conducting Ileana Cotrubas, Plácido Domingo, and Sherrill Milnes. This was followed by Otto Schenk’s production in 1989, with June Anderson (in her Met debut), Luciano Pavarotti, and Leo Nucci in the leading roles. Michael Mayer’s new staging opened January 28, 2013, starring Diana Damrau, Piotr Beczala, and Željko Lučić.