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 play 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.
In a remarkable career spanning six decades in the theater, Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901) composed 28 operas, at least half of which are at the core of today’s repertoire. His role in Italy’s cultural and political development has made him an icon in his native country. Francesco Maria Piave (1810–1876), his librettist for Rigoletto, collaborated with him on ten works, including Ernani, La Traviata, La Forza del Destino, and the original versions of Macbeth and Simon Boccanegra.
Victor Hugo’s 1832 play Le Roi s’amuse, set at the court of King François I of France (circa 1520), is 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 curse that is the catalyst of the drama. Although the Duke remains unnamed, he was modeled on history’s Vincenzo Gonzaga (1562–1612). The Gonzaga family motto—“Forse che sì, forse che non” (“Maybe yes, maybe no”)—provides an interesting insight into some of the Duke’s cavalier pronouncements. In Michael Mayer’s Met production, the action unfolds in Las Vegas in 1960, a time and place with surprising parallels to the decadent world of Verdi’s original setting.
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 arias—“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 solos, “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 a 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 returned to sing 37 more times before his death in 1921. The monumental title role was owned for many years by Italian baritone Giuseppe De Luca, who sang it 96 times between 1916 and 1940. This was surpassed in more recent times by the great Cornell MacNeil, who gave 102 performances between 1959 and 1980. Bronx native and audience favorite Roberta Peters sang Gilda 88 times between 1961 and 1985. The previous Met staging, by Otto Schenk, premiered in 1989 with June Anderson in her company debut as Gilda, Luciano Pavarotti as the Duke, and Leo Nucci as Rigoletto. The current production, which served as the debut of director Michael Mayer and the entire creative team, opened in January 2013, with Michele Mariotti conducting Diana Damrau, Piotr Beczala, and Željko Lučić.