Verdi's Rigoletto

by Emily Reese, Minnesota Public Radio
January 21, 2011

St. Paul, Minn. — Have you ever compromised to a point that only vaguely resembles your original offer? Verdi knows a thing or two about that.

Take his opera, Rigoletto, for instance. La Fenice opera house in Venice commissioned a new opera from Verdi in 1850. After toying around with an idea involving a play by the elder Alexandre Dumas, Verdi honed in on a play by Victor Hugo called Le roi s'amuse (The King's Fool).

I find it surprising that Verdi and his cohorts didn't consider the consequences of trying to adapt Hugo's play since censors banned performances of it for FIFTY YEARS after one performance in 1832. True, Verdi had some concerns... but others, who ended up having no influence whatsoever, convinced Verdi the censors would have no problem with the adaptation.

Verdi had some concerns... but others, who ended up having no influence whatsoever, convinced Verdi the censors would have no problem with the adaptation.

Those people being the librettist, Francesco Piave, and the secretary of La Fenice, Guglielmo Brenna.

At the time, the Austrians were calling the shots in Northern Italy. An opera about a French king that likes sleeping with the ladies and throwing a few too many drinks back must have cut too close to the quick, so the Austrians demanded a "few" changes.

Verdi and Piave changed the names of the lead characters. They also changed the location of the action from the French royal court to a duchy in Mantua, Italy. The censors forced Verdi to remove scenes that implied immoral behavior by the Duke. The scene where the Duke goes to the bar? They changed that to make it seem like he was tricked into doing so.

So, what is Rigoletto about, in a sentence or two? The title character, Rigoletto, is a hunchbacked jester in the Duke's court. Rigoletto loves his daughter, Gilda, but hates the Duke. The Duke happens to fall in love with Rigoletto's daughter. Insert drama here (there's even a curse). It's fantastic!

Musically speaking, if Beethoven's Symphony no. 3 was the single piece of music that launched Western music into a completely new direction in the early 19th century, Verdi's Rigoletto changed the way opera functioned in the mid 1850s.

The music is truly remarkable. Verdi inserted a breadth and depth of musical styles into each act. The prelude contains musical clues of the story to come, and who could forget the famous "La donna e mobile" aria from Act 3?

Rigoletto enjoyed 250 performances in the first decade after its premiere. It makes Opera America's list as one of the 20 most performed operas of all time.

I urge you to listen to Classical Minnesota Public Radio this Saturday at noon for a live broadcast of Verdi's Rigoletto performed by the Metropolitan Opera.

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