Verdi and the making of Rigoletto
Verdi first mentioned the idea of
setting a version of Victor Hugo’s drama as early as September 1849, with
Salvadore Cammarano to be the librettist; but it was a contract with La Fenice,
Venice, signed in April 1850, that eventually brought the opera into being.
Perhaps encouraged by the presence in Venice of the accomplished baritone Felice
Varesi (who had created the title role of Macbeth in 1847), Verdi suggested to
Piave, the resident poet at La Fenice, that they adapt Hugo’s Le roi s’amuse,
‘one of the greatest creations of the modern theatre’. He had fears that there
might be problems with the censor, but Piave – after seeking advice in Venice –
managed to reassure him and the plan went ahead under the working title of La
maledizione. By summer 1850, however, signs from Venice over the suitability of
the subject were not encouraging. Verdi insisted on continuing, saying that he
had now found the ‘tinta musicale’ of the subject and so could not turn back.
By early October 1850 the cast for the première had been fixed and Piave had submitted a draft libretto. Verdi, still involved with Stiffelio at Trieste, had little time to begin composition in earnest and probably did not start drafting the score until late November. However, soon after that, the Venetian police censors intervened: calling attention to the ‘disgusting immorality and obscene triviality’ of the libretto, they imposed an absolute ban on its performance in Venice. Verdi was enraged, blamed Piave and, refusing to consider writing a fresh opera, offered La Fenice Stiffelio instead. Piave hastened to make an acceptable adaptation, entitled Il duca di Vendome, which accommodated the censor’s objections and was officially approved on 9 December. But Verdi remained steadfast. In a long letter of 14 December, he went into great detail about the dramatic essentials of the subject, insisting (among many aspects that Il duca di Vendome had obscured or excised) that the principal tenor retain absolute power over his subjects, and that Triboletto (as the protagonist was then called) remain a hunchback. By the end of the month, a compromise had been reached with the authorities at La Fenice – one which in effect allowed Verdi to retain what he considered dramatically essential – and, soon after, the opera acquired a new title, Rigoletto.
Verdi spent the first six weeks of 1851 busy with his score, and arrived in Venice in mid-February to begin piano rehearsals with the principals and to complete the orchestration. The première, with a cast that included Raffaele Mirate (Duke), Felice Varesi (Rigoletto; for illustration see Varesi, felice) and Teresa Brambilla (Gilda), was an enormous success, and the opera, in spite of continuing problems with local censors, almost immediately became part of the basic repertory, being performed more than 250 times in its first ten years. Rigoletto has never lost this position and remains one of the most frequently performed operas in the international repertory.
The prelude, as was to become common in mature Verdi, is a kind of synopsis of the opera’s dramatic essentials. The brass, led by solo trumpet and trombone, intone a restrained motif later to be associated with the curse placed on Rigoletto; this builds in intensity and eventually explodes into a passionate sobbing figure for full orchestra; the figure peters out, the brass motif returns, and simple cadences effect a solemn close.
Act 1.i A magnificent hall in the ducal palace The opening scene begins with a lengthy sequence of dance tunes played by an offstage band, over which the Duke and his courtiers converse casually. The Duke has seen a mysterious young woman in church and is determined to pursue her. To drive home his libertine character, he sings a lively two-verse ballad in praise of women, ‘Questa o quella’. The Duke then turns his attention to Countess Ceprano, courting her to the accompaniment of a graceful minuet, before Rigoletto enters to mock the unfortunate Count Ceprano. To a reprise of the opening dance sequence, two conversations take place: Marullo tells the courtiers that Rigoletto has been seen with a mistress; and Rigoletto advises the Duke to banish or even execute Ceprano. The ensuing ensemble (Ceprano and others muttering vengeance against Rigoletto) is interrupted by Monterone, come to upbraid the Duke for dishonouring his daughter. Rigoletto’s sarcastic reply brings down on him Monterone’s terrifying anathema; the scene ends in a further ensemble, with Rigoletto visibly shaken by the old man’s curse. This opening sequence is clearly based on the traditional introduzione format, but with the difference that it boasts an unprecedented level of musical variety: from the brash bandadances, to the Duke’s light, comic-opera ballad, to the elegant minuet, to Rigoletto’s grotesque musical parodies, to Monterone’s high drama and the stunned reaction it provokes. But there are also connecting devices (for example the descending melodic motif that opens the dance sequence) and a superb sense of dramatic economy; these serve to bind the episode together, making it one of the richest and most complex opening scenes hitherto attempted in 19th-century Italian opera.
1.ii The most deserted corner of a blind alley Rigoletto, returning home, meets the hired assassin Sparafucile, who offers his services. Rigoletto questions him but eventually sends him away. This brief duet, which is preceded by Rigoletto’s intoned reminiscence of Monterone’s curse, ‘Quel vecchio maledivami!’, bears no relation to the formal norms of Italian opera. It is in a single movement, and the primary continuity is supplied by an orchestral melody played on solo cello and bass. Over this, the voices converse with the greatest naturalness, indeed with a restraint that belies the violence of the subject matter. The effect is calm, sinister and seductive: a necessary pause after the preceding hectic activity, but one that adds an important new colour to the dramatic ambience.
Rigoletto reaches his house and offers the first of his long, freely structured soliloquies, ‘Pari siamo’, in which the contrasting aspects of his personality are tellingly explored within the flexibility of recitative but with the potential emotional charge of aria. The ensuing duet with Gilda returns us to the formal world of early 19th-century opera, with a conventional four-movement sequence. An opening movement dominated by a syncopated violin melody gives way to ‘Deh non parlare al misero’, in which Rigoletto’s increasingly agonized reminiscences of Gilda’s mother are answered by his daughter’s broken semiquavers and sobbing appoggiaturas. The tempo di mezzo transition section, as will happen increasingly in later Verdi, also develops lyrical ideas, notably ‘Culto, famiglia, patria’, in which Rigoletto tells Gilda that she is everything to him. But Gilda wishes for freedom to leave the house. Rigoletto, horrified, calls Giovanna and, in the cabaletta ‘Ah! veglia, o donna’, enjoins her to watch carefully over her charge. This final movement has none of the driving energy of the early Verdian cabaletta, being far more reminiscent of the relaxed, Donizettian type. But there is room for a remarkable intrusion of stage action: having reached the reprise of the main melody, Rigoletto breaks off, hearing a noise outside; as he goes to investigate, the Duke slips in unnoticed. The cabaletta then continues, but with a hidden presence that will lead the action forward.
Left alone with Giovanna, Gilda muses on the young man she has seen at church, hoping that he is poor and of common blood. The Duke emerges from his hiding place to declare his love and so initiate a further four-movement duet, though one much reduced in scope and duration in comparison with the preceding number. After a hectic dialogue movement in which Gilda begs him to leave, the Duke declares his love in a simple 3/8 Andante, ‘È il sol dell’anima’, at the end of which he is joined by Gilda in an elaborate double cadenza. In a brief connecting movement he declares himself to be ‘Gualtier Maldè’, a poor student; Ceprano and Borsa appear in the street outside and Giovanna warns the lovers to part. The cabaletta of farewell, ‘Addio … speranza ed anima’, is extremely condensed, with the principals sharing the exposition of melodic material.
Gilda, again left alone, muses on her lover’s name in the famous aria ‘Caro nome’. The opening melodic phrases, as befits the character, are of extreme simplicity, but the aria develops in a highly unusual manner, as a contrasting series of strictly controlled ornamental variants, quite unlike the ‘open’-structured ornamental arias of the previous generation. The aria is further held together by its delicately distinctive orchestration, in which solo woodwind play an important part. As the opening melody returns in a coda-like ending, Marullo, Ceprano, Borsa and other courtiers again appear outside and can be heard preparing Gilda’s abduction.
Rigoletto returns to the scene, and briefly recalls Monterone’s curse before Marullo tells him that they are planning to abduct Countess Ceprano, who lives nearby. While fitting Rigoletto with a mask, Marullo succeeds in blindfolding him. The courtiers sing a conspiratorial chorus, ‘Zitti, zitti’, mostly pianissimo but full of explosive accents. Rigoletto holds a ladder as the courtiers emerge with Gilda, her mouth stopped by a handkerchief. He does not hear her cries for help, but soon tires of holding the ladder and takes off the mask to find his house open and Gilda’s scarf lying in the street. To an inexorable orchestral crescendo he drags Giovanna from the house but is unable to speak except once more to recall Monterone’s curse, ‘Ah! ah! ah! … la maledizione!’
Act 2 A hall in the Duke’s Palace First comes a Scena ed Aria for the Duke, in the conventional mode and a necessary close focus on a character who will see no more of the action during Act 2. ‘Ella mi fu rapita!’ (‘She was stolen from me!’), he cries, and in a lyrical Adagio pours out his feelings at the presumed loss of Gilda. ‘Parmi veder le lagrime’ is formally structured along familiar lines, but is intricately worked, proving not for the first or the last time that formal conventionality in no sense blunted Verdi’s musical or dramatic skills. The courtiers enter to announce in a jaunty narrative that they have duped Rigoletto and have his ‘mistress’ (actually of course Gilda) nearby, a change of perspective that immediately allows the Duke to launch into a cabaletta of joy and expectation, ‘Possente amor mi chiama’. This aria’s rather backward-looking melodic and orchestral brashness causes it often to be cut in performance, although doing so unbalances both the scene and the characterization of the Duke, who needs the somewhat vulgar catharsis of this moment to be fully convincing in his Act 3 persona.
The Duke leaves to take advantage of Gilda and Rigoletto enters for a very different kind of Scena ed Aria. Affecting indifference before the courtiers, he mixes a nonchalant, public ‘la ra, la ra’ – though one in which the ‘sobbing’ appoggiaturas are all too apparent – with stifled asides as he searches for his daughter. The innocent questions of a page eventually reveal to him that Gilda is with the Duke, and against the background of a string figure of gathering intensity he reveals that Gilda is his daughter and demands access to her. The courtiers block his way, and in frustration he unleashes a remarkable aria. ‘Cortigiani, vil razza dannata’, unclassifiable in conventional formal terms, is in three distinct parts, each marking a stage in Rigoletto’s psychological progress. First, against an obsessively repeated string figure, he rails against the courtiers with fierce declamatory force, concentrating almost exclusively on the range from a 3rd above to a 3rd below middle C. Then comes fragmentation, a breaking of the accompaniment rhythm, and of the voice: a frightening disintegration. And finally, the third stage, Rigoletto gains a new dignity and continuity: aided by a solo cello and english horn he asks pity for a father’s sorrow.
Gilda enters and throws herself into her father’s arms, and so begins yet another four-movement duet. Rigoletto solemnly dismisses the courtiers and bids her tell her story. ‘Tutte le feste al tempio’, unlike the parallel lyrical duet movements of Act 1, is begun by Gilda: it is she who now achieves a new status from the circumstances that have befallen her. And as with Rigoletto’s previous monologue, the duet moves through strongly contrasting sections, from her opening narration, a kind of duet with solo oboe, to Rigoletto’s obsessively fixed response, and finally to another clarifying third stage, in which Rigoletto bids his daughter weep and in which she joins him with a completely new kind of vocal ornamentation, only superficially resembling that found in Act 1. Monterone passes by on his way to prison, and this time Rigoletto assures him that he will have vengeance. Staring at a portrait of the Duke, the jester joins with his daughter in a cabaletta, ‘Sì, vendetta, tremenda vendetta’, that brings the act to a close.
Act 3 A deserted bank of the River Mincio An orchestral prelude, in Verdi’s severe, ‘academic’ vein, leads to a brief exchange between Rigoletto and Gilda. Time has passed, but Gilda still loves the Duke. Rigoletto, promising to show her the true man, has her gaze into Sparafucile’s house through a chink in the wall. The Duke appears, asks loudly for wine and the woman of the house, and breaks into a song in praise of women’s fickleness. ‘La donna è mobile’ is certainly the best-known music in the score, perhaps unfortunately, as its brashness and simplicity make their full effect only in the surrounding gloomy context. The Duke’s song dies away, to be followed by the famous quartet. Its first half, ‘Un dì, se ben rammentomi’, is dominated by a violin melody that carries reminiscences of earlier material (in particular Gilda’s ‘Caro nome’), over which the Duke and Maddalena converse lightheartedly. Then comes the main lyrical portion, ‘Bella figlia dell’amore’, in which Rigoletto and Gilda join them in a static portrayal of contrasting emotional states. The dramatic aptness of this section is made especially powerful by the manner in which the three principals involved all offer a kind of digest of their vocal characters elsewhere in the opera: the Duke (who carries the main melodic thread) ardent and lyrical, Gilda overcome with appoggiatura ‘sobbing’, Rigoletto declamatory and unmoving.
A storm is gathering, and over fragmentary bursts of orchestral colour Sparafucile and Rigoletto agree on a price for the murder of the Duke. Rigoletto will return at midnight to throw the body in the river. The hunchback retires and the Duke is conducted to a room, there dreamily recalling ‘La donna è mobile’ before falling asleep. As the storm gathers force, Maddalena tries to persuade Sparafucile to spare the Duke. Professional honour forbids that he kill Rigoletto instead, but he agrees that, if another should come along before the time allotted, a substitution can be made. Gilda overhears this and, in a trio characterized by its relentless rhythmic drive (‘Se pria ch’abbia il mezzo’), decides to sacrifice herself. She enters the house, and a terrifying orchestral storm depicts the gruesome events that occur within.
The final scene shows great economy of means. The storm recedes as Rigoletto reappears to claim the body, which has been placed in a sack for easy disposal. He is about to dispatch it when he hears the voice of the Duke, again singing ‘La donna è mobile’. Horrified, he opens the sack to find Gilda, on the point of death. Their final duet, ‘V’ho ingannato!’, is necessarily brief, leaving time only for Gilda to look towards her arrival in heaven – with the obligatory flute arpeggios – and for Rigoletto to declaim in ever more broken lines. He recalls the curse one last time, and the curtain falls.
Rigoletto is almost always placed as the true beginning of Verdi’s maturity, the essential dividing line between ‘early’ works and the succession of repertory pieces that will follow; and this special placing is commonly seen as exemplified in the striking formal freedom of various scenes. But thus to concentrate on such matters risks a certain distortion: most of the opera’s formal innovations have been prefigured in earlier works, and many of its most powerful sections exist unambiguously and comfortably within the formal conventions of the time. However, no earlier work is as impeccably paced as Rigoletto, nor does any show its overall consistency of style; and perhaps these matters are best seen as linked not so much to formal matters as to a new sense of musical characterization. With Rigoletto and Gilda in particular, Verdi managed to create musical portraits that function for the most part within the formal norms of Italian opera but that nevertheless manage to develop individually as the drama unfolds. This was as much a technical as an emotional advance; it entailed, that is, a kind of mature acceptance of conventional discourse, as well as an acutely developed perspective on precisely when it could be ignored and when exploited. Though this acceptance was to appear in various guises in the works of Verdi’s maturity, it was something that rarely left the composer during the remainder of his long career.