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 dItalia (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.

Libret­tist Piave

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.”


Rigo­letto Extra:

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.