Giuseppe Verdi and the Rigoletto

Musical Waves

Venice, 1851, La Fenice Theater. Giuseppe Verdi is famous both in Italy and in Europe. He seems like a luxury commuter: La Scala in Milan, La Fenice in Venice, the Royal Theater of Saint Charles in Naples, Firenze, Trieste and then Paris and Her Majesty’s Theater in London.

If we consider the historical period, three years have passed from the revolutions of '48 and in ten years' time, in 1861, Italy will be born.


Verdi is the musical interpreter of the Italian Risorgimento. No, Verdi is not a revolutionary, at least not in the current sense of the term. Verdi pertains to Risorgimento and to Romanticism. He was born in 1813. In 1816, Madame De Staël issues the article De l'esprit des traductions. Besides, in 1818 arises the Conciliatore, a Milanese periodical that becomes the voice of the new literary ideas and the manifesto of the Romantics. Verdi has a fire inside, which asks to recognize and raise the popular culture, the one true and sincere, aware of the identity and of the social and political conscience reached by the lowest class, hence very far from the high-falutin and adulatory conscience of the European courts.


The drama is the literary form chosen by Verdi to divulgate the suffering, the sacrifice and the popular grudge. He always chooses ordinary and known characters, thus popular but capable of touching, shocking and involving in the intimate and deep narrations.

The Rigoletto is the first of the so called popular trilogy that comprises Il Trovatore and La Traviata: masterpieces at which Verdi was forced, for various vicissitudes, to work at the same time. Popular is a correct adjective if we consider the epoch it refers to, but, to be better understood, I think that the adjective democratic is more suitable. Democratic in the strict sense of the word, that is "ruled by the people". The composer feels a strong desire to put in contact the culture and the music with the people meant as a social identity: no more ignorant and insensible but democratically aware and able to give form and dignity to Italy and to the Italian people. In a couple of years in the theaters where Verdi's operas are performed, from the peanut galleries many leaflets will be launched with written on them VIVA VERDI (long live Verdi), where Verdi meant Vittorio Emanuele Re D’Italia (Vittorio Emanuele King of Italy), the enlightened monarch capable of representing the unity of Italy.


Although he knew he had to suffer the censorship of the House of Hapsburg through the military Governor of Venice, Verdi chooses, together with the secretary of the Fenice Guglielmo Brema and the librettist Francesco Maria Piave, a subject based on Le Roi s’amuse, historical drama by Victor Hugo. The impending danger of the Governor, as expected, goes down denying the visa. He defines this opera "of a disgusting wickedness and obscene coarseness". Practically it is not tolerated, as a protagonist, a hunch-backed court jester also rebel and sarcastic towards a spineless and lascivious high society, a dissolute sovereign and the almost suicidal protagonist's daughter dying in a sack. The opera gains the authorization only after the following changes: the action is transferred from the court of France to an Italian Seigniory, Francesco I is replaced by an imaginative Duke of Mantua and the name of the protagonist is changed from Triboletto to Rigoletto. To notice that the V. Hugo's opera was integrally performed in Paris in 1832!


Finally, on 11 March 1851, Verdi's Rigoletto goes on stage. The performance is such a triumph that the applauses continually interrupt it and the most intense arias of the opera are repeated many times. The "popularity" of the Rigoletto explodes in the Italians' souls that see in the story the drama of a still-to-do Italy, torn between oppression and vengeance. Verdi, against his own will, or maybe not, is a revolutionary: Rigoletto, the protagonist, is a deformed and humble human being, but also mocking and evil. He is a loving father and a vindictive man. Besides, it is not usual giving to a baritone the lead role, relegating tenor and soprano to background figures. There are also some slides of style like the fact of calling Maddalena the lascivious Sparafucile's sister. Verdi is however revolutionary in the musical drafting as he describes the Duke with trivial minuets and the fatuous and corrupted court with futile and monotonous arias.

However, the emergent aspect is that the Rigoletto is the "debut opera" and represents Verdi like an author capable of conjugate words and music in a unicum that makes the drama emotionally passionate and exciting. In the Rigoletto, words and music have the same weight, hold on mutually and self-sustain the momentum of the plot in a simple, although difficult to reach, graphic elegance, which draws in the excitation.

Note the instrumental incipit of the opera assigned to the trumpets that introduce the curse, structured in a complex harmonic progression abruptly interrupted by the noisy and disorderly intervention of the Duke's group of courtiers. The genial and revolutionary operatic machine of Giuseppe Verdi starts.



Act 1 – The Duke of Mantua – tenor – boasts about his conquests and confides to a courtier to be in love with a mysterious maiden he often meets in church. But he also wishes to seduce the Countess of Ceprano: "... Neither is any different..." in front of her husband and Rigoletto - baritone – the Duke's hunchbacked court jester, mocks the husband of the lady to whom the Duke is paying attention, and advises the Duke to get rid of him. Rigoletto's continuous impudent provocations irritate the noblemen who resolve to take vengeance on him and the occasion is offer thanks to the fact that Rigoletto hides in his home a secret lover. During the party, comes the old Count Monterone - bass – whose daughter the Duke had seduced. Whit his sarcasms Rigoletto mocks also Count Monterone who is arrested after an heavy curse casted on him and on the Duke: "… and you, you serpent, you who ridicule a father's grief, my curse upon you...". The curse genuinely terrifies Rigoletto as a sinister premonition.

Rigoletto meets the assassin Sparafucile – bass – who offers his services knowing that someone courted the girl who lives with Rigoletto. Rigoletto declines but asks where is possible to find him. Sparafucile indicates an inn onshore the Mincio river where, attracted by the comely sister Maddalena, he kills his victims. Rigoletto comes home thinking of Sparafucile's words and Count Monterone's curse. He contemplates the similarities between the two of them: "...The old man cursed me! We are two of a kind: my weapon is my tongue, his is a dagger...". He meets Gilda – soprano – and embraces her. She is his daughter, not his lover.   She was born from a young affair, but Rigoletto has been concealing her from the Duke and the rest of the city, and she has been nowhere except to the church with her faithful nurse Giovanna – mezzo soprano – "O woman. watch over this flower..." . When Rigoletto has gone, the Duke, who thanks to Giovanna's complicity had introduced himself in the house, pretending to be a student, convinces Gilda of his love:" is the sunshine of the soul, ’tis life itself...". When she asks for his name, he hesitantly calls himself Walter Maldè. Hearing sounds and fearing that her father has returned, Gilda sends the Duke away after they quickly trade vows of love: "Walter Maldè... Beloved name..."Rigoletto bumps into the noblemen who, armed and disguised, convinced him that they are abducting the Countess of Ceprano, while they actually want to abduct who they believe being Rigoletto's lover. They blindfold and use him to help with the abduction: "...softly, softly, the trap is closing...". Too late he realizes that it was Gilda who was carried away. Rigoletto collapses, remembering Montarone's curse.


Act 2 - The Duke has not find Gilda at home and after have been returning at the palace, he is concerned that Gilda has disappeared. He finds out to love her sincerely: "I seem to see the tears...". The noblemen inform him that they have captured Rigoletto' s mistress and the Duke finds out that these men have mistaken the daughter Gilda with the lover. Known that she has been hidden in the palace, he decides to go to comfort her: " Mighty love beckons me...". In the meantime Rigoletto enters and tries to find Gilda by pretending to be uncaring towards the courtiers. He fears she may fall into the hands of the Duke. Finally, he admits that he is in fact seeking his daughter and asks the courtiers to return her to him: " Courtiers, vile, damnable rabble...".Gilda rushes in tearing and with shame confesses to the distressed father her drama and her passion for the young man that only now she knows being the Duke:... Each holy day, in church, Ah! I asked infamy, O God...". Gilda pleads for her lover, but Rigoletto demands vengeance against the Duke: Yes, revenge, terrible revenge...".


Act 3 - Outside Sparafucile's house. At night. Rigoletto tries to convince Gilda that the Duke does not love her. The Duke, in fact, attracted by the comely Maddalena, can be heard singing "...Woman is fickle...". Rigoletto makes Gilda realize that the Duke is attempting to seduce Maddalena" ...Fairest daughter of love ..., and while he is with the assassin's sister, Rigoletto bargains with Sparafucile, who is ready to murder his guest for money. He orders his daughter to put on man's clothes in order to prepare to go to Verona. But also Maddalena has fallen in love with the Duke:"... He is really most attractive this young man..." and begs his brother for the Duke's life. The two make an agreement: to kill the first person that enters the house and give to Rigoletto the stranger's body wrapped in a sack so to throw the corpse in the Mincio river. Gilda that has overheard Maddalena begging for the Duke's life, resolves to sacrifice herself and enters the house. She is immediately mortally wounded by Sparafucile and collapses. At midnight, when Rigoletto arrives with money, he receives a corpse, but while he is going away he hears the Duke's voice and, bewildered, opens the sack and, to his despair, discovers his mortally wounded daughter who is begging forgiveness:" …" I deceived you...I was guilty..." and dies in his arms. Rigoletto cries out in pain and regret: "He’s in there!... Who calls me? In heaven above.." Montarone's curse has come true.


The great interpreters of Rigoletto

The first Gilda's interpreter at the Venetian debut of Rigoletto in 1851 was Teresa Brambilla. Verdi, however, asked for Erminia Frezzolini, already an excellent performer in I Lombardi alla Prima Crociata and in Giovanna D’Arco. Unfortunately, the singer was committed and Verdi preferred Brambilla to Teresa De Giuli and to Virginia Boccabadati.

Teresa Brambilla was a soprano with limpid, agile vocal skills and a pure flourishing. She had already performed in Bellini and Donizetti's operas and was a worthy interpreter of the nineteenth-century Bel Canto school. Other performers of the century were Luigia Bendazzi, Lillian Nordica, Gabrielle Krauss, Marcella Sembrich, Emma Albani, Adelina Patti and the famous Nellie Melba, stage name of Helen Porter Mitchell. In the role of Duke of Mantua at the Fenice theater could be only Raffaele Mirate, great interpreter of almost the entire Verdi's repertory, but also an overall interpreter of the new role and of the new vocality that has to exist in the cords of the modern tenor, staying away from the Rossini's vocalities, since that Rossini often used female voices instead of the tenors to get closer to the romantic voices. Among the other great tenors of the 1800s, can be mentioned Carlo Boucardè, Julian Gayarre, Ludovico Graziani, Francesco Marconi and, between 1896 and the first twenty years of the 1900s, the great Enrico Caruso.

In the role of Rigoletto, one of the most difficult roles in the baritone repertory, must be remembered Felice Varesi, amazing artist, maybe the best in the eighteenth century. And then Gaetano Ferri, Giovanni Corsi, Giorgio Ronconi, Enrico Delle Sedie among the others.


The audiophile recordings

Not many. Rigoletto is not considered as a "great" classic in the operas like the Aida. Anyway, I suggest:



RCA-LIVING STEREO LSC-7027, double: Il Rigoletto

RCA-LIVING STEREO LSC-2837: Highlights from Rigoletto

Mercury SR90273-5, SR3-9012 triple: Rigoletto, whole opera



Sony 88697910052, 1964: Rigoletto

London Decca CD ADD 0289 440 2422 7 LF 2: Rigoletto

Deutsche Grammophon CD ADD 0289 457 7532 6 GOR 2: Rigoletto

Philips DVD 5099964186894: Rigoletto

1813-2013 | Celebrating 200 years of Giuseppe Verdi
1813-2013 | Celebrating 200 years of Giuseppe Verdi
by Roberto
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