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Monday, April 23, 2018

The Verdi Project: Rigoletto

In which our composer creates a sensation and changes the world of opera, forever.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Tito Gobbi (with Renata Scotto) looking suitably demented in a scene from Rigoletto.
There are Verdi operas and then there are those that stand as immortal pillars of the repertory. It is the opinion of this writer that the greatest of these is Rigoletto, a shattering tragedy that has captured the imagination of the public since it first took the stage in Venice in 1850. Verdi's fifteenth opera changed the art form permanently, and established him as the most beloved composer in Italy.

Rigoletto adapts a play (Le Roi s'amuse by Victor Hugo) that was banned in France after only one performance in 1832.. It is an unfiltered examination of absolute corruption and an indictment of absolute power. The main character is the foul-mouthed, hunchbacked old jester to the unnamed Duke of Mantua. (This was the opera's "safe" replacement for the King of France, as the province of Mantua had no extant royal family who would challenge Verdi or Piave to a duel for defaming their good name.) The Duke is a libertine that beds every woman he can find. Their cozy relationship (much like Leporello and Don Giovanni's) is threatened when the jester's daughter is kidnapped and brought to the Duke, who rapes her. The jester plots bloody revenge, which backfires, killing his daughter instead.

Verdi reached a watershed with Rigoletto. There are very few arias, and even the two famous tunes sung by the Duke ("Questa o quella" and "La donna é mobile") are closer in form to Italian popular songs than formal opera numbers. The main character has no arias per se but is defined by a series of scored dramatic monologues that show the terror, self-loathing and conflict in Rigoletto's heart. Only Gilda, his guileless, doomed daughter gets a real aria and hers, "Caro nome" is one of the sweetest and most tuneful pieces in the vast Verdi canon. Gilda also has to evolve quickly, from songbird to doomed heroine in a short amount of stage time.

Equally memorable is the scene where Rigoletto, walking along a street at night, is suddenly accosted by a mysterious man. This is Sparafucile, the assassin who he will eventually hire to murder the Duke. The two men converse over an easy, loping figure in cello and bassoons, bass contrasting with baritone. After Sparafucile exits, Rigoletto sings the first of his monologues, "Para siamo" where he compares the razor-sharp knife of the assassin to his own tongue, and shares his hidden feelings of disgust for the Duke and his corrupt court. Those feelings boil over again in the second act diatribe "Cortigiani, vil razza dannata!" which comes when a frantic Rigoletto is searching for his daughter.

The libretto, by regular Verdi scribe Francesco Maria Piave had to change the names of all the main characters, presumably in an effort to please the finicky censors. (The name "Rigoletto" is from the French word "rigole" meaning "laugh." "Sparafucile", who still identifies himself as "a Burgundian" in the opera, one of the few French traces left in the story, means "shotgun.") Even with these changes in place, Verdi had to fight tooth and nail over the big plot points (the censor objected to the idea of a singing hunchback) and the little ones, particularly regarding the opera's shocking denouement. Verdi found himself in an argument over whether or not the jester should carry his daughter's corpse in a sack, a moment that sets up the most shocking moment in this, or any opera.

So: that climax. There's the jester, who has been tortured and tormented by the courtiers and his master, finally getting his own back. He has paid an assassin, Sparafucile, to set the Duke up to be murdered after an assignation with the killer's sexy sister. Then, his daughter Gilda shows up and in a mix of suicidal devotion and deep-rooted guilt (it could be either that motivates her) offers herself to be killed in the Duke's stead. As Rigoletto crows over the body, the Duke is heard in the distance, singing "La donna é mobile." Even if the audience in an opera house knows what's coming, there is still that sickening moment of silence.

It is the last theatrical masterstroke in an opera into which Verdi poured everything that he knew about writing for the theater. And he did it so well that the success of Rigoletto threatened to eclipse the fourteen operas that had come before it. The people of Italy took the opera to heart, and Rigoletto spread like wildfire across the continent, quickly becoming the popular standard that it is today. No opera company can be taken seriously without staging it at least once. Every tenor wants to sing the Duke at some point in his career. As for the title role, it is a standard career benchmark for a lyric baritone who can act with his voice.

Recording Recommendations

There are over forty available recordings and DVDs of Rigoletto, with the first ones being made in 1915 and 1918. For our purposes here, we will recommend recordings from the stereo era which have a particular emphasis on the drama and energy of this endlessly entertaining opera. These are four I keep going back to.

Coro e Orchestra del La Scala cond. Rafael Kubelik (DG, 1961)
Rafael Kubelik conducts an intelligent reading of the score featuring baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as the hunchbacked jester. The German lieder specialist acquits himself well in Italian. Carlo Bergonzi is a fabulous, virile Duke, well matched with the young Renata Scotto.

Vienna Philharmonic cond. Carlo Maria Giulini (DG, 1980)
Carlo Maria Giulini's methodical approach to the score is not loved by everybody, but the man conducted a fine Rigoletto. Domingo makes a rare foray into bad-guy territory here, reaching to the very top of his voice and virility.  The great Piero Cappuccilli is the thinking man's Rigoletto: equal parts monster and caring father in the title role.

Coro e Orchesra della Academia Santa Cecilia di Roma cond. Giuseppe Sinopoli (Philips, 1987)
This is a searing, dramatic reading of the opera with an excellent cast. Sinopoli does the thing he is known for, shaping his own view of every phrase in the score, with results that are either riveting or frustrating. Not a first choice, but an interpretation worth hearing. Renato Bruson is the jester. Neil Shicoff is in good form as the Duke, and Edita Gruberova a songbird Gilda.

Coro e Orchestra del La Scala cond. Riccardo Muti (Sony, 1994)
Renato Bruson, who sang the role for Sinopoli on Philips (see above) returns for this smoking hot live recording made at La Scala. Riccardo Muti in his second recording of the opera, proves an exacting taskmaster. Andrea Rost and a young Roberto Alagna are prime casting as Gilda and the creepy Duke.

OK. I've rambled long enough. Here are Željko Lučić and Stefan Kocán as Rigoletto and Sparafucile in the current Met production of Rigoletto which sets the tawdry and sleazy world of this opera in 1960s Las Vegas and reimagines the Duke as a cabaret entertainer and Rigoletto as his "comic relief" opening act. It works better than you might think.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.