Throughout his long life, Giuseppe Verdi (1813 – 1901) seemed to have a gut instinct about exactly which character or dramatic situation would best suit his opera-composing abilities. So it is not surprising that when he read Victor Hugo’s play, Le roi s’amuse (The king’s amusement), Verdi realized its astonishing potential. The discovery of a play that fired his imagination could not have come at a better time, since he had just been commissioned by Teatro la Fenice in Venice to write an opera to be premiered early in 1851.
In April 1850 Verdi wrote his librettist, Francisco Maria Piave (1810 – 1876): “I have in mind a subject that would be one of the greatest creations of the modern theater if the police will only allow it. Who knows? They allowed Ernani, they might even allow us to do this and at least there are no conspiracies in it. Have a try! The subject is grand, immense and there’s a character in it who is one of the greatest creations that the theater of all countries and all times can boast. The subject is Le roi s’amuse and the character I’m speaking about is Triboulet.
“PS: As soon as you get this letter, put on your skates; run about the city and find someone of influence to get us permission to do Le roi s’amuse. Don’t go to sleep; give yourself a good shake; do it at once. I shall expect you at Busseto [Verdi’s home], but not now, after they’ve agreed to the subject.”
The letter is the first time Verdi mentions his desire to write what would become Rigoletto—one of the greatest of all Italian operas — and it is an extremely telling letter in many ways. First of all, no sooner does Verdi express enthusiasm for the subject than he adds, “if the police will allow it.” Verdi knew exactly what he would be up against, and so he deftly shifted the almost impossible task of slipping the subject matter past the censor onto the shoulders of his poor librettist.
Victor Hugo in 1853
Victor Hugo’s play had been given in Paris in November 1832 when it was suspended by the government after a single performance. Hugo pleaded his case before the Tribunal de Commerce but to no avail. The play was published, but it was not performed again in Paris until 1882 — a fact that doubly displeased the playwright since Verdi’s opera, based on the play, was given over 100 times during its first season in the very city that continued to ban Le roi s’amuse.
At the time, Venice and much of northern Italy was in the hands of the Austrians, who were deeply fearful of the attempts to unify Italy and were well aware of Verdi’s patriotic stance. His very name had become an anagram, an open secret used to inflame the public toward independence and unification. “Viva VERDI” was scrawled on walls, painted on banners, shouted by crowds — ostensibly in honor of the increasingly popular composer. But “VERDI” also stood for Vittorio Emmanuele, Re d’Italia (Vittorio Emmanuel, King of Italy, meaning a free, unified Italy, not just King of Sardinia as he was at the time). Obviously anything that might be inflammatory, as defined by the increasingly uneasy occupying Austrians, would be banned.
Also telling in that first letter to Piave on the subject of their new opera was Verdi’s singling out the character of Triboulet, who eventually would be named Rigoletto. In another letter Verdi referred to Triboulet as “a creation worthy of Shakespeare,” which was the highest praise Verdi could give.
Verdi had first used Piave as a librettist on Ernani, which premiered in Venice in 1844, and collaborated with him regularly thereafter. Piave supplied the composer with ten librettos in all, including Macbeth, Traviata, Simon Boccanegra and La forza del destino, in addition to Rigoletto. If Piave was not a particularly distinguished writer on his own, he took direction well, put up with Verdi’s almost constant abuse, was to all accounts extraordinarily charming, and had numerous influential friends in high places. He was promptly assured there would be no difficulty with La Fenice presenting an opera based on Le roi s’amuse, so the two men set to work.
But of course there would be difficulty — a great deal of it. In the play the villain is a king, Francis I of France, whose licentiousness is plainly depicted, and the hero is a hunchback commoner, a jester in the court. Furthermore, in the final scene a corpse is displayed on stage in a sack. Both in France and Germany the play was derided for its “obscenity.” The Austrian censors were so offended by Piave’s libretto they simply washed their hands of the whole matter in a letter to the directors of La Fenice: “His Excellency the Military Governor Chevalier Gorzkowski…directs me to communicate to you his profound regret that the poet Piave and the celebrated maestro Verdi should not have chosen a more worthy vehicle to display their talents than the revolting immorality and obscene triviality of the libretto of La maledizione [as the opera was then called].
“His above-mentioned Excellency has decided the performance shall be absolutely forbidden, and wishes me at the same time to request you not make further inquiries in the matter.”
Verdi, however, was not about to withdraw the project. He answered the objections of the Austrian overlords one by one, finally responding to the desire that Triboulet should not be ugly or hunchbacked.
“A hunchback who sings? Why not?” Verdi wrote to the theater directors. “Will it be effective? I don’t know; but if I don’t know, neither, I repeat, does the person who suggested the change. To me there is something really fine in representing on stage this character outwardly so ugly and ridiculous, inwardly so impassioned and full of love. I chose the subject precisely because of those qualities, and if these original features are removed I cannot write the music.…I tell you frankly that, good or bad, my music is not just written casually for any situation; I try to give it a character appropriate to the drama.”
Giuseppe Bertoja’s première stage set for the second scene.
In Rigoletto Verdi did just that — he wrote powerful, evocative music that describes each of the characters so perfectly it would be laughable to suggest the same music be sung by the watered-down, colorless characters suggested by the censors. Finally Verdi, Piave, and the La Fenice management reached a compromise with the censors, but all of the key dramatic points from Le roi s’amuse made it into Rigoletto. In the title character, Verdi wrote what is probably the greatest part ever written for a high baritone — an astonishing tour de force for a singing actor who can convey all the emotional nuances of the music.
Some writers have compared Verdi’s Rigoletto to Beethoven’s Third Symphony — with it, the composer reached a new level of mastery, broke new ground in his art form, and after it nothing was ever the same. In Rigoletto Verdi took the existing forms of Italian bel canto opera as used by Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti, and molded them into a new, more immediately and powerful music drama, which he would continue to expand for the rest of his life.
Traditionally an Italian opera would open with a chorus, introducing one of the main characters who would then sing a formal aria, frequently in two parts, first a slow cantabile, then a faster cabaletta. But consider how Verdi adapted this form in Rigoletto’s opening scene. It would have been easy to follow the tradition. The opening scene is a party; the chorus could have been the usual extensive one, praising their host the Duke, who would respond with the usual formal two-part aria. It would work perfectly with the story.
Poster for the very first performance.
Instead, Verdi follows his intensely dramatic, extremely short prelude (in which trumpets and trombones constantly reiterate the dotted-note rhythm and notes Rigoletto will use throughout the opera with the phrase “Quel vecchio malediami!” That old man cursed me!) with an off-stage band playing some of the most banal “cheerful” music possible. Instead of opening with the chorus (which is on stage), we get snippets of brief conversation by a variety of characters that will only make sense in hindsight.
In this opening scene Verdi anticipates the cinema by more than half a century. He (the camera) is walking us through the party, giving us an overview while letting us overhear numerous bits of conversation. When Verdi wants to let us know something is really important, he switches from the off-stage banda to using the orchestra in the pit (as in a camera close-up). As he does for the Duke’s first aria, “Questa o quello.” Yes, it is the Duke’s first aria, but far from being the usual two-part formal aria Verdi gives the Duke a breezy dance tune (in the score it is labeled “Ballata”). It fits perfectly with the dramatic situation, gives us insight into the Duke himself, and last barely two minutes; then the orchestra yields to a string banda on stage and the flirting — the conversation that sets up the entire opera — continues. It is all so concise that the entire whirlwind opening scene lasts barely fifteen minutes.
Another way Verdi reworked the forms of Italian opera, was the way he repeatedly interrupts a scene to give the audience a foretaste of what’s to come. In the opening scene, the chorus is interrupted by Monterone’s appearance and curse, which abruptly changes the tone of the scene — thus heightening the crucial point of the drama. In the second scene, the duet between Rigoletto and Gilda is interrupted by the furtive arrival of the Duke, who, in turn, is interrupted in his wooing of Gilda by a noise outside which turns out to be the footsteps of the courtiers who have come to abduct Gilda. Her single aria is interrupted by their comments, which serve to tighten the drama. All this overlapping of scenes and characters gives a sense of urgency and propulsiveness to the storytelling.
Felice Varesi, the first Rigoletto
In was in Rigoletto that Verdi set the standard in writing an extensive ensemble (the famous Quartet), which serves not only the formal, technical requirements of an isolated set piece of music, but also imparts additional information about all the characters involved and furthers the drama — all at the same time. Rather than having each of the characters sing the same musical phrase in turn, and then working it together harmonically (as composers had tended to do before), Verdi assigns each of the four characters a distinct melody and rhythm uniquely his or her own — that only that character could sing at that point in the drama. For example, the Duke’s insouciant wooing of Maddalena with his seductive, lyric melody to the words “Bella figlia dell’amore” (Beautiful daughter of love), which oozes charm and pheromones equally; her answer in scampering staccato sixteenth notes that elude the Duke musically as she deftly eludes his groping hands on stage; Gilda’s descending melodic line that constantly droops, sighs, breaks into sobs, and Rigoletto’s broad, compassionate supporting of Gilda. Somehow Verdi miraculously turns all these disparate elements into a proper quartet of astonishing beauty, even elegance without robbing the number of any of its considerable dramatic and emotional impact.
Add to this Verdi’s growing facility at orchestration and the numerous ways he uses the orchestra to give emotional color to a character of a scene. For instance, his use of flutes when Rigoletto suddenly thinks of Gilda during “Pari siamo,” or when she is on stage, to convey her innocence and purity; or the way he slowly builds the storm in the last act, the utter convincing fury of its height, and then the way it takes most of the rest of the act to die away.
After Rigoletto, Verdi gave us only masterpieces (the single exception being Aroldo, itself a reworking of the earlier Stiffelio) — one after another until his miraculous Falstaff written at the age of almost eighty. As Julian Budden writes in his monumental study of Verdi’s operas: “Just after 1850, at the age of thirty-eight, Verdi closed the door on a period of Italian opera with Rigoletto. The so-called ottocènto in music was finished. Verdi continued to draw on certain of its forms for the next few opera, but in a totally new spirit.”
The Duke’s Famous Aria
Though Rigoletto, like most Verdi opera, is brimming with melody, one catchy tune persistently stands out from all the others: “La donna è mobile” (Woman is fickle). It’s one of the most famous tenor arias ever written and is sung by the libertine Duke in the opera’s last act, in which its slightly tawdry — but utterly irresistible — nature is sheer genius on Verdi’s part. There is nothing the least bit aristocratic about it (unlike the Duke’s Act One aria, “Questa o quella.”) In the last act the Duke is slumming, in disguise, settling in for an evening of drinking and whoring, but even so, his irrepressible charm prevails, perfectly captured in this catchy, but almost plebian tune in three-quarter (waltz) time.
Verdi certainly knew how unforgettable this effervescent song was, and he was concerned that it might become known before the opera’s premier in Venice on March 11, 1851. Legend has it that to avoid the singers or other members of the company whistling or humming the melody outside the theater before opening night (thus diluting the shock of the audience haring it for the first time in the context of the drama), he delayed giving the music to the tenor until the dress rehearsal.
This seems a bit unlikely since one of the most jarring uses of the tune in when the tenor reprises it at the end, as Rigoletto stands over the sack he believes contains the Duke’s body. It is unlikely Verdi would chance ruining such a horrifying coup de théâtre by only having rehearsed the moment once. But it is quite possible the composer delayed giving the tenor the music to “La donna è mobile” until well into the rehearsal process so it would still be fresh on opening night.
And one can easily believe the other stories about the aria, that the first audience exited La Fenice humming and whistling the new hit tune. After all, audiences still do that over 150 years later.
This article first appeared in the 2004 program book for the Aspen Opera Theater.
The photo at the top of the page is the great Tito Gobbi as Rigoletto, one of his most famous roles.