Table of contents
The making of Rigoletto
Verdi was commissioned to write a new opera by the theatre La Fenice, Venice in 1850, when he was already a well known composer with a certain freedom of choosing the works he would prefer. He then asked Piave (with whom he had already made Ernani, I due Foscari, Macbeth, Il Corsaro and Stiffelio) to examine the Kean by Alexandre Dumas, but he felt he needed a more energetic subject to work on. He found Victor Hugo's Le roi s'amuse.
Verdi later would have explained that "It contains extremely powerful positions ... The subject is great, immense, and has a character that is one of the most important creations of the theatre of all countries and all Ages".
It was a highly controversial subject, indeed, and Hugo himself had already had trouble with censorship in France, which had banned production of his play after its first performance nearly twenty years earlier (and would continue to ban it for another thirty years). As Austria at that time directly controlled much of Northern Italy, it came before the Austrian Board of Censors.
From the beginning Verdi was aware of the risks, as was Piave (or perhaps more). A letter has been found in which Verdi writes to Piave: "Use four legs, run through the town and find me an influential person who can obtain the permission for making Le Roi s'amuse. Correspondence between a prudent Piave and an already committed Verdi followed, and the two remained at risk and underestimated the power and the intentions of Austrians. Even the friendly Guglielmo Brenna, secretary of La Fenice who had promised them that they would not have problems with the censors, was in error.
At the beginning of summer 1850, some rumours started to spread that Austrian censorship was going to forbid the production. They considered the Hugo work to verge on lese majeste, and would never permit such a scandalous work to be performed in Venice.
In August Verdi and Piave prudently retired to Busseto, Verdi's hometown, to continue the composition and prepare a defensive scheme. They wrote to the theatre, ensuring that the censor's doubts about the morality of the work were not justified and that however... since very little time was left, very little could have been done. The work was confidentially called by the composers The Malediction, and this unofficial title was used by Austrian censor De Gorzkowski (who evidently had known of it from spies) to enforce, if needed, the violent letter by which he definitively denied consent to its production.
In order not to waste everything of their work, Piave tried to remodel the libretto and was even able to sort from it another opera "Il Duca di Vendome", in which the sovereign was substituted by a duke and both the hunchback and the malediction disappeared. Verdi was completely contrarian to that solution and preferred instead direct negotiations with censors, arguing over each and every point of the work.
It is supposed that thanks to the mediation of wise Brenna, who had showed Austrians some letters and articles depicting the bad character but the great value of the artist, in the end the parties were able to agree that the action had to be moved from the royal court of France to a duchy of France or Italy; the characters would have remained the same as Hugo's, but their names would also have to be changed. The scene in which the sovereign retires in the bedroom of Gilda would be deleted and the visit of the Duke to the Taverna was not intentional anymore, but provoked by a trick. The hunchback (originally Triboulet) became Rigoletto (from French rigolo = funny). The name of the work too was changed.
For the prima, Verdi had Felice Varesi as Rigoletto, the young tenor Raffaele Mirate was the Duke, and Gilda was soprano Teresina Brambilla, instead of Teresa De Giuli Borsi (whom Verdi would have preferred). Teresina Brambilla was a well-known soprano coming from a family of singers and musicians; one of her nieces, namesake Teresa Brambilla, was the wife of Amilcare Ponchielli.
The opening was a complete triumph, and the Duke's cynical aria, La donna è mobile, was sung in the streets the next morning. Click here to hear a 1908 recording of La donna è mobile by Enrico Caruso.
Due to the high risk of unauthorised copying, Verdi had demanded the maximum secrecy from all his singers and musicians. Mirate (the Duke) had his spartito only a few evenings before the premiere and was forced to swear he wouldn't sing or even whistle the tune of La donna è mobile.
The daughter of baritone Varesi (Rigoletto), Giulia Cori, many years later described her father's performance at the premiere: Varesi was really uncomfortable with the false hump he had to wear; he was so uncertain that, even if he was a very experienced singer, he really had a panic attack when it was his turn to enter the stage. Verdi immediately realised he was paralysed and roughly pushed him on the stage, so he appeared with a clumsy tumble. The audience, thinking it was a gag, was very amused.
- Place, Mantua and vicinity.
- Time, the sixteenth century.
ACT I. A room in the palace. The king has seen an unknown beauty in the church and desires to possess her. He also pays court to the Countess Ceprano. (Ballad: "I love beauty.") Rigoletto, the hunchbacked jester of the prince, mocks the husbands of the ladies to whom the prince is paying attention, and advises the prince to get rid of them by prison or death. The noblemen resolve to take vengeance on Rigoletto, especially Count Monterone, whose daughter the prince had dishonoured. Monterone curses the prince and Rigoletto.
ACT II. (Or, if the opera is produced in three acts, change of scene of the first act.) A street; half of the stage, divided by a wall, is occupied by the courtyard of Rigoletto's house. Thinking of the curse, the jester approaches and is accosted by the bandit Sparafucile, who offers his services. (Duet: "The old man cursed me.") Rigoletto opens a door in the wall and visits his daughter Gilda, whom he is concealing from the prince. (Scene: "We are alike." Duet: "My father! when I see thee.") She does not know her father's occupation and, as he has forbidden her to appear in public, she has been nowhere except to church. When Rigoletto has gone the prince enters, whom Gilda only knows as a student she had met at the church. (Duet: "My heart calls, I love him.") He calls himself Gualtier Maldé. Later, the hostile noblemen seeing her at the wall, believe her to be the mistress of the jester. They abduct her, and when Rigoletto arrives they inform him they have abducted the Countess Ceprano, and with this idea he assists them in their arrangements. Too late Rigoletto realises that he has been duped, and shudderingly thinks of the curse.
ACT III (or ACT II). The prince hears that Gilda has been abducted. (Aria: "I see her tears.") The noblemen inform him that they have captured Rigoletto's mistress and by their description he recognises Gilda. She is in the palace, and he hastens to see her. The noblemen now make sport of Rigoletto. He tries to find Gilda by singing, and as he fears she may fall into the hands of the prince, at last acknowledges that she is his daughter. (Rigoletto: "Yes, my daughter!") Gilda begs her father to send the people away, and acknowledges to him her shame, of which the prince was guilty. (Finale: "Speak, we are alone.") The act ends with Rigoletto's oath of vengeance against his master.
ACT IV. A street. The half of the stage shows the house of Sparafucile, with two rooms, one above the other, open to the view of the audience. Rigoletto enters with Gilda, who still loves the prince. Rigoletto shows her the prince in the house of the bandit amusing himself with Sparafucile's sister Maddalena. (Cansone: "Oh, how deceitful are women's hearts.") Rigoletto bargains with the bandit, who is ready to murder his guest, whom he does not know, for money. (Quartet: "As a dancer you appear.") Rigoletto orders his daughter to put on man's attire and go to Verona, whither he will follow later. Gilda goes, but fears an attack upon the prince. Rigoletto offers the bandit 20 scudi for the death of the prince. As a thunderstorm is approaching, the prince determines to remain in the house, and Sparafucile assigns to him the ground floor as sleeping quarters. Gilda returns disguised as a man and hears the bandit promise Maddalena, who begs for the life of the prince, that if by midnight another can be found to take the prince's place he will spare his life. Gilda resolves to sacrifice herself for the prince and enters the house. When Rigoletto arrives with the money he receives from the bandit a corpse wrapped in a bag and rejoices in his triumph. He is about to cast the sack into the river, weighting it with stones, when he hears the voice of the prince singing as he leaves the house. Bewildered, he opens the bag and to his despair discovers the corpse of his daughter, who for a moment revives and declares she is glad to die for her beloved. As she breathes her last, Rigoletto exclaims in horror, "The old man's curse is fulfilled."