Music with Ease > 19th Century Italian Opera > Rigoletto (Verdi) - Synopsis
An Opera by Giuseppe Verdi
Opera in three acts, by Verdi; words by Francesco Maria Piave, founded on Victor Hugos play, "Le Roi s'Amuse." Produced, Fenice Theatre, Venice, March 11, 1851; London, Covent Garden, May 14, 1853; Paris, Théâtre des Italiens, January 19, 1857; New York, Academy of Music, November 4, 1857, with Bignardi and Frezzolini. Caruso made his début in America at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, as the Duke in "Rigoletto," November 23, 1903; Galli Curci hers, as Gilda Chicago, November 18, 1916.
THE DUKE OF MANTUA
RIGOLETTO, his jester, a hunchback
COUNT CEPRANO, a Noble
COUNT MONTERONE, a Noble
SPARAFUCILE, a bravo
BORSA, in the Dukes service
GILDA, daughter of Rigoletto
GIOVANNI, her duenna
MADDALENA, sister to Sparafucile
Courtiers, nobles, pages, servants.
Time: Sixteenth century.
Titta Ruffo as Rigoletto, c. 1912
"Rigoletto" is a distinguished opera. Composed in forty days in 1851, nearing three-quarters of a century of life before the footlights, it still retains its vitality. Twenty years, with all they imply the experience and artistic growth, lie between "Rigoletto" and "Aida." Yet the earlier opera, composed so rapidly as to constitute a tour de force of musical creation, seems destined to remain a close second in popularity to the more mature work of its great composer.
There are several reason for the publics abiding interest in "Rigoletto." It is based upon a most effective play by Victor Hugo, "Le Roi s'Amuse," known to English play-goers in Tom Taylors adaptation as "The Fools Revenge." The jester was one of Edwin Booths great roles. This role of the deformed court jester, Rigoletto, the hunchback, not only figures in the opera, but has been vividly characterized by Verdi in his music. It is a vital, centralizing force in the opera, concentrating and holding attention, a character creation that appeals strongly both to the singer who enacts it and to the audience who sees and hears it. The role has appealed to famous artists. Ronconi (who taught singing in New York for a few years, beginning in 1867) was a notable Rigoletto; so was Galassi, whose intensely dramatic performance still is vividly recalled by the older opera-goers; Renaud at the Manhattan Opera House, Titta Ruffo at the Metropolitan Opera House, Philadelphia, both made their American débuts as Rigoletto.
But the opera offers other rôles of distinction. Mario was a famous Duke in other days. Caruso made his sensational debut at the Metropolitan in the character of the volatile Duca de Mantua, November 23, 1903. We have had a Gilda Adelina Patti, Melba, and Tetrazzini, to mention but a few; and the heroine of the opera is one of the roles of Galli-Curci, who appeared in it in Chicago, November 18, 1916. No coloratura soprano can, so to speak, afford to be without it.
Thus the opera had plot, a central character of vital dramatic importance, and at least two other characters of strong interest. But there is even more to be said in its behalf. For next, to the sextet in "Lucia," the quartet in the last act of "Rigoletto" is the finest piece of concerted music in Italian opera -- and many people will object to my placing it only "next" to that other famous ensemble, instead of on complete equality with, or even ahead of it.
The "argument" of "Rigoletto" deals with the amatory escapades of the Duke of Mantua. In these he is aided by Rigoletto, his jester, a hunchback. Rigoletto, both by his caustic wit and unscrupulous conduct, has made many enemies at court. Count Monterone, who comes to the court to demand the restoration of his daughter, who has been dishonoured by the Duke, is met by the jester with laughter and derision. The Count curses Rigoletto, who is stricken with superstitious terror.
For Rigoletto has a daughter, Gilda, whom he keeps in strict seclusion. But the Duke, without being aware who she is, has seen her, unknown to her father, and fallen in love her. Count Ceprano who many times has suffered under Rigolettos biting tongue, knowing that she is in some way connected with the jester, in fact believing her to be his mistress, and glad of any opportunity of doing him an injury, forms a plan to carry off the young girl, and so arranges it that Rigoletto unwittingly assists in her abduction. When he finds that it is his own daughter whom he has aided to place in the power of the Duke, he determines to murder his master, and engages Sparafucile, a bravo, to do so. This man has a sister, Maddalena, who entices the Duke to a lonely inn. She becomes fascinated with him, however, and begs her brother to spare his life. This he consents to do if before midnight any one shall arrive at the inn whom he can kill and pass off as the murdered Duke. Rigoletto, who has recovered his daughter, brings her to the inn so that, by being a witness of the Dukes inconstancy, she may be cured of her unhappy love. She overhears the plot to murder her lover, and Sparafuciles promise to his sister. Determined to save the Duke, she knocks for admittance, and is stabbed on entering. Rigoletto comes at the appointed time for the body. Sparafucile brings it out in a sack. The jester is about to throw it into the water, sack and all, when he hears the Duke singing. He tears open the sack, only to find his own daughter, at the point of death.
Act I opens in a salon in the Dukes palace. A suite of other apartments is seen extending into the background. All are brilliantly lighted for the fête that is in progress. Courtiers and ladies are moving about in all directions. Pages are passing to and fro. From an adjoining salon music is heard and bursts of merriment.
There is effervescent gayety in the orchestral accompaniment to the scene. A minuet played by an orchestra on the stage is curiously reminiscent of the minuet in Mozarts "Don Giovanni." The Duke and Borsa enter from the back. They are conversing about an "unknown charmer" -- none other than Gilda -- whom the Duke has seen at church. He says that he will pursue the adventure to the end, although a mysterious man visits her nightly.
Among a group of his guests the Duke sees the Countess Ceprano, whom he has been wooing quite openly, in spite of the Counts visible annoyance. The dashing gallant cares nothing about what anyone may think of his escapades. Least of all the husbands or others relatives of the ladies. "Questo e quella per me pari sono" (This one, or that one, to me tis the same).
This music floats on air. It gives at once the cue to the Dukes character. Like Don Giovanni he is indifferent to fate, flits from one affair to another, and is found as fascinating as he is dangerous by all women, of whatever degree, upon whom he confers his doubtful favours.
Rigoletto, hunchbacked but agile, sidles in. He is in cap and bells, and carries the jesters bauble. The immediate object of his satire is Count Ceprano, who is watching his wife, as she is being led off on the Dukes arm. Rigoletto then goes out looking for other victims. Marullo joins the nobles. He tells them that Rigoletto, despite his hump, has an inamorata. The statement makes a visible impression upon Count Ceprano, and when the nobles, after another sally from the jester, who has returned with the Duke, inveigh against his bitter tongue, the Count bids them meet him at night on the morrow and he guarantee them revenge upon the hunchback for the gibes they have been obliged to endure from him.
The gay music, which forms a restless background to the recitatives of which I have given the gist, trips buoyantly along,
to be suddenly broken in upon by the voice of one struggling without, and who, having freed himself from those evidently striving to hold him back, bursts in upon the scene. It is the aged Count Monterone. His daughter has been dishonoured by the Duke, and he denounces the ruler of Mantua before the whole assembly. His arrest is ordered. Rigoletto mocks him until, drawing himself up to his full height, the old noble not only denounces him, but calls down upon him a fathers curse.
Rigoletto is strangely affrighted. He cowers before Monterones malediction. It is the first time since he has appeared at the gathering that he is not gibing at some one. Not only is he subdued; he is terror-stricken.
Monterone is led off between halberdiers. The gay music again breaks in. The crowd follows the Duke. But Rigoletto?
The scene changes to the street outside of his house. It is secluded in a courtyard, from which a door leads into the street. In the courtyard are a tall tree and a marble seat. There is also seen at the end of the street, which has no thoroughfare, the gable end of Count Cepranos palace. It is night.
As Rigoletto enters, he speaks of Monterones curse. His entrance to the house is interrupted by the appearance of Sparafucile, an assassin for hire. In a colloquy, to which the orchestra supplies an accompaniment, interesting because in keeping with the scene he offers to Rigoletto his services, should they be needed, in putting enemies out of the way -- and his charges are reasonable.
Rigoletto has no immediate need of him, but ascertains where he can be found.
Sparafucile goes. -- Rigoletto has a soliloquy, beginning, "How like are we! -- the tongue, my weapon, the dagger his! To make others laugh is my vocation,-his to make them weep!. . . Tears, the common solace of humanity, are to me denied. . . Amuse me buffoon -- and I must obey." His mind still dwells on the curse -- a fathers curse, pronounced upon him, a father to whom his daughter is a jewel. He refers to it, even as he unlocks the door that leads to his house, and also to his daughter, who, as he enters, throws herself into his arms.
He cautions her about going out. She says she never ventures beyond the courtyard save to go to church. He grieves over the death of his wife -- Gildas mother -- that left her to his care while she was still an infant. "Deh non parlare al misero" (Speak not of one whose loss to me).
He charges her attendant, Giovanna, carefully to guard her. Gilda endeavours to dispel his fears. The result is the duet for Rigoletto and Gilda, beginning with his words to Giovanna, "Veglia, o donnma, questo fiore" (Safely guard this tender blossom).
Rigoletto hears footsteps in the street and goes out through the door of the courtyard to see who may be there. As the door swings out, the Duke, for it is he, in the guise of a student, whose stealthy footsteps have been heard by the jester, conceals himself behind it, then slips into the courtyard, tosses a purse to Giovanna, and hides in the shadow of the tree. Rigoletto reappears for a brief moment to say good-bye to Gilda and once more to warn Giovanna to guard her carefully.
When he has gone Gilda worries because fear drove her to refrain from revealing to her father that a handsome youth has several times followed her from church. This youths image is installed in her heart. "I long to say to him I lo-- "
The Duke steps out of the trees shadow, motions to Giovanna to retire and, throwing himself at Gildas feet, takes the words out of her mouth by exclaiming, "I love thee!"
No doubt taken by surprise, yet also thrilled with joy, she hearkens to him rapturously as he declares, "E il sol dell anima, la vita e amore" (Love is the sun by which passion is kindled).
The meeting is brief, for again there are footsteps outside. But their farewell is an impassioned duet, "Addio speranza ed anima" (Farewell, my hope, my soul, farewell).
He has told her that he is a student, by name Walter Malde. When he has gone, she muses upon the name, and, when she has lighted a candle and is ascending the steps to her room, she sings the enchanting coloratura air, "Caro nome che il mio cor" (Dear name, my heart enshrines).
If the Gilda be reasonably slender and pretty, the scene, with the courtyard, the steps leading up to the room, and the young maiden gracefully and tenderly expressing her hearts first romance, is charming, and in itself sufficient to account for the attraction which the role holds for prima donnas.
Tiptoeing through the darkness outside come Marullo, Ceprano, Borsa, and other nobles and courtiers, intent upon seeking revenge for the gibes Rigoletto at various times has aimed at them, by carrying off the damsel, whom they assume to be his inamorata. At that moment, however, the jester himself appears. They tell him they have come to abduct the Countess Ceprano and bear her to the Ducal palace. To substantiate this statement Marullo quickly has the keys to Cepranos house passed to him by the Count, and in the darkness holds them out to Rigoletto, who, his suspicions allayed because he can feel the Ceprano crest in basso-relievo on the keys, volunteers to aid in the escapade. Marullo gives him a mask and, as if to fasten it securely, ties it with a handkerchief, which he passes over the piercings for the eyes. Rigoletto, confused, holds a ladder against what he believes to be the wall of Cepranos house. By it, the abductors climb his own wall, enter his house, gag, seize, and carry away Gilda, making their exit from the courtyard, but in their hurry failing to observe a scarf that has fluttered from their precious burden.
Rigoletto is left alone in the darkness and silence. He tears off his mask. The door to his courtyard is open. Before him lies Gildas scarf. He rushes into the house, into her room; reappears, stanggering under the weight of the disaster, which, through his own unwitting connivance, has befallen him.
"Ah! La maledizione!" he cries out. It is Monterone's curse.
Act II has its scene laid in the ducal palace. This salon has large folding doors in the background and smaller ones on each side, above which are portraits of the Duke and of the Duchess, a lady who, whether from a sense of delicacy or merely to serve the convenience of the stage, does not otherwise appear in the opera.
The Duke is disconsolate. The has returned to Rigolettos house, found it empty. The bird had flown. The scamp mourns his loss -- in affecting language and music, "Parmi veder le lagrime" (Fair maid, each tear of mine that flows).
In a capital chorus he is told by Marullo and the others that they have abducted Rigolettos inamorata.
The Duke well knows that she is the very one whose charms are the latest that have enraptured him. "Posente amor mi chiama" (To her I love with rapture).
He learns from the courtiers that they have brought her to the palace. He hastens to her, "to console her," in his own way. It is at this moment Rigoletto enters. He knows his daughter is in the palace. He has come to search for her. Aware that he is in the presence of those who took advantage of him and thus secured his aid in the abduction of the night before, he yet, in order to accomplish his purpose, must appear light-hearted, question craftily, and be diplomatic, although at times he cannot prevent his real feelings breaking through. It is the ability of Verdi to give expression to such varied emotions which make this scene one of the most significant in his operas. It is dominated by an orchestral motive, that of the clown who jests while his heart is breaking.
Finally he turns upon the crowd that taunts him, hurls invective upon them; and, when a door opens and Gilda, whose story can be read in her aspect of despair, rushes into his arms, he orders the courtiers out of sight with a sense of outrage so justified that, in spite of the flippant words with which they comment upon his command, they obey it.
Father and daughter are alone. She tells him her story -- of the handsome youth, who followed her from church -- "Tutte le feste all tempio" (One very festal morning).
Then follows her account of their meting, his pretence that he was a poor student, when, in reality, he was the Duke -- to whose chamber she was borne after her abduction. It is from there she has just come. Her father strives to comfort her -- "Piangi, fanciulla" (Weep my child).
At this moment he is again reminded of the curse pronounced upon him to by the father whose grief with him had been but the subject of ribald jest. Count Monterone, between guards, is conducted through the apartment to the prison where he is to be executed for denouncing the Duke. Then Rigoletto vows vengeance upon the betrayer of Gilda.
But such is the fascination which the Duke exerts over women that Gilda, fearing for the life of her despoiler, pleads with her father to "pardon him, as we ourselves the pardon of heaven hope to gain," adding, in an aside, "I dare not say how much I love him."
It was a corrupt, care-free age. Victor Hugo created a debonair character -- a libertine who took life lightly and flitted from pleasure to pleasure. And so Verdi lets him flit from tune to tune -- gay, melodious, sentimental. There still are plenty of men like the Duke, and plenty of women like Gilda to love them; and other women, be it recalled, as discreet as the Duchess, who does not appear in this opera save as a portrait on the wall, from which she calmly looks down upon a jester invoking vengeance upon her husband, because of the wrong he has done the girl, who weeps on the breast of her hunchback father.
To Act III might be given as a sub-title, "The Fools revenge," the title of Tom Taylors adaptation into English of Victor Hugos play. The scene shows a desolate spot on the banks of the Mincio. On the right, with its front to the audience, is a house two stories high, in a very dilapidated state, but still used as an inn. The doors and walls are so full of crevices that whatever is going on within can be seen from without. In front are the road and the river; in the distance is the city of Mantua. It is night.
The house is that of Sparafucile. With him lives his sister, Maddalena, a handsome young gypsy woman, who lures men to the inn, there to be robbed -- or killed, if there is more money to be had for murder than to robbery. Sparafucile is seen within, cleaning his belt and sharpening his sword.
Outside are Rigoletto and Gilda. She cannot banish the image of her despoiler from her heart. Hither the hunchback has brought her to prove to her the faithlessness of the Duke. She sees him in the garb of a soldier coming along the city wall. He descends, enters the inn, and calls for wine and a room for the night. Shuffling a pack of cards, which he finds on the table, and pouring out the wine, he sings of woman. This is the famous "Donna è mobile" (Fickle is woman fair).
It has been highly praised and violently criticized; and usually gets as many encores as the singer cares to give. As for the criticisms, the cadenzas so ostentatiously introduced by singers for the sake of catching applause, are no more Verdis than is the high C in "Il Trovatore." The song is perfectly in keeping with the Dukes character. It has grace, verve, and buoyancy; and, what is an essential point in the development of the action from this point on, it is easily remembered. In any event I am glad that among my operatic experiences I can count having heard "Donna è mobile" sung by such great artists as Campanini, Caruso, and Bonci, the last two upon their first appearances in the rôle in this country.
At a signal from Sparafucile, Maddalena joins the Duke. He presses his love upon her. With professional coyness she pretends to repulse him. This leads to the quartet, with its dramatic interpretation of the different emotions of the four participants. The Duke is gallantly urgent and pleading: "Bella figlia dell amore" (Fairest daughter of the graces).
Maddalena laughingly resists his advances: "I am proof, my gentle wooer, gainst your vain empty nothings."
Gilda is moved to despair. "Ah, thus to me of love he spoke."
Rigoletto mutters of vengeance.
It is the Duke who begins the quartet; Maddalena who first joins in by coyly mocking him; Gilda whose voice next falls upon the night with despairing accents; Rigoletto whose threats of vengeance then are heard. With the return of the theme, after the first cadence, the varied elements are combined.
They continue so to the end. Gildas voice, in brief cries of grief, rising twice to effective climaxes, then becoming even more poignant through the syncopation of the rhythm.
Rising to a beautiful and highly dramatic climax, the quartet ends pianissimo.
This quartet usually is sung as the pièce de résistance of the opera, and is supposed to be the great event of the performance. I cannot recall a representation of the work with Nilsson and Campanini in which this was not the case, and it was so at the Manhattan when "Rigoletto" was sung there by Melba and Bonci. But at the Metropolitan, since Carusos advent, "Rigoletto" has become a "Caruso opera," and the stress is laid on "Donna è mobile," for which numerous encores are demanded, while with the quartet, the encore is deliberately side-stepped -- a most interesting process for the initiated to watch.
After the quartet, Sparafucile comes out and receives from Rigoletto half of his fee to murder the Duke, the balance to be paid when the body, in a sack, is delivered to the hunchback. Sparafucile offers to throw the sack into the river, but that does not suit the fools desire for revenge. He wants the grim satisfaction of doing so himself. Satisfied that Gilda has seen enough of the Dukes perfidy, he sends her home, where, for safety, she is to don male attire and start on the way to Verona, where he will join her. He himself also goes out.
A storm now gathers. There are flashes of lightning; distant rumblings of thunder. The wind moans. (Indicated by the chorus, a bouche fermée, behind the scenes.) The Duke has gone to his room, after whispering a few words to Maddalena. He lays down his hat and sword, throws himself on the bed, sings a few snatches of "Donna è mobile," and in a short time falls asleep. Maddalena below, stands by the table. Sparafucile finishes the contents of the bottle left by the Duke. Both remain silent for awhile.
Maddalena, fascinated by the Duke, begins to plead for his life. The storm is now at its height. Lightning plays vividly across the sky, thunder crashes, wind howls, rain falls in torrents. Through this uproar of the elements, to which night adds its terrors, comes Gilda, drawn as by a magnet to the spot where she knows her false lover to be. Through the crevices in the wall of the house she can hear Maddalena pleading with Sparafucile to spare the Dukes life. Kill the hunchback," she counsels, " when he comes with the balance of the money." But there is honour even among assassins as among thieves. The bravo will not betray a customer.
Maddalena pleads yet more urgently. Well -- Sparafucile will give the handsome youth one desperate chance for life: Should any other man arrive at the inn before midnight, that man will he kill and put in the sack to be thrown into the river, in place of Maddalenas temporary favourite. A clock strikes the half-hour. Gilda is in male attire. She determines to save the Dukes life -- to sacrifice hers for his. She knocks. There is a moment of surprised suspense within. Then everything is made ready. Maddalena opens the door, and runs forward to close the outer one. Gilda enters. For a moment one senses her form in the darkness. A half-stifled outcry. Then all is buried in silence and gloom.
The storm is abating. The rain has ceased; the lightning become fitful, the thunder distant and intermittent. Rigoletto returns. "At last the hour of my vengeance is nigh." A bell tolls midnight. He knocks at the door. Sparafucile brings out the sack, receives the balance of his money, and retires into the house. "This sack his winding sheet!" exclaims the hunchback, as he gloats over it. The night has cleared. He must hurry and throw it into the river.
Out of the second story of the house and on to the wall steps the figure of a man and proceeds along the wall toward the city. Rigoletto starts to drag the sack with the body toward the stream. Lightly upon the night fall the notes of a familiar voice singing:
Donna è mobile
Qual piuma al vento;
E di pensiero.
(Fickle is woman fair,
Like feather wafted;
Constant, ah, never).
It is the Duke. Furiously the hunchback tears open the sack. In it he beholds his daughter. Not yet quite dead, she is able to whisper, "Too much I loved him -- now I die for him." There is a duet: Gilda, "Lassu -- in cielo" (From yonder sky); Rigoletto, "Non morir" (Ah, perish not).
"Maledizione!" -- The music of Monterones curse upon the ribald jester, now bending over the corpse of his own despoiled daughter, resounds on the orchestra. The fool has had his revenge.
For political reasons the performance of Victor Hugos "Le Roi s'Amuse" was forbidden in France after the first representation. In Hugos play the principal character is Triboulet, the jester of Francois I. The King, of course, also is a leading character; and there is a pen-portrait of Saint-Vallier. It was considered unsafe, after the revolutionary uprisings in Europe in 1848, to present on the stage so licentious a story involving a monarch. Therefore, to avoid political complications, and copyright ones possibly later, the Italian librettist laid the scene in Mantua. Triboulet became Rigoletto; Francois I the Duke, and Saint-Vallier the Count Monterone. Early in its career the opera also was given under the title of "Viscardello."
*** Rigoletto Poster ***
In this haunting and surrealistic poster, Rigoletto is seen wearing a red devils hat and crying tears of blood.
This poster was designed by the famous Polish poster artist, Rafal Olbinski. It was commissioned by the New York City Opera.
Buy this Rigoletto poster
Size: 24 in. x 37 in.