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Composed in 1851, Verdi's opera RIGOLETTO is an intriguing study of the contrasts between good and evil. Destinies collide as the womanizing Duke of Mantua and his vengeful court jester RIGOLLETO, weave a fascinating drama of seduction, betrayal, curses and vendettas ending with the tragic death of an innocent young woman.
Understanding Verdi's opera RIGOLETTO by Jenny L. Kelly, Teatro Lirico D'Europa
Giuseppe Verdi produced RIGOLETTO in 1851. It was a work of profound majesty and visceral strength that began the great middle period of his career. In his early operas, Verdi honored the conventions of Italian opera. With RIGOLETTO, he transformed them. The characters are all drawn with insight and compassion and maintain their musical individuality in ensembles as well as solos, nowhere more imaginatively than in the magnificent last act quartet that captured four voices in a blend of contradictory emotions. In order to escape Austrian Censorship, which was wide spread in Italy at the time, Verdi composed RIGOLETTO, using the play of Victor Hugo entitled 'The King Amuses Himself.' By changing the names of Francis I to the Duke of Mantua and Tribouletto to Rigoletto, Verdi was able to disguise frank commentary on a decadent society that would otherwise have been considered a scandal. Before the opera begins, the Duke of Mantua, an absolute ruler who seduces women as he pleases, and his hunchback court jester, Rigoletto, his accomplice and henchman, have abducted Count Monterone's daughter, and the unfortunate woman has committed suicide. As the curtain is raised on Act I, in the court of Mantua, cruel and foolish men and women of pleasure flatter the Duke while dancing. They gossip about Rigoletto, whom they wrongfully suspect is secretly keeping a young lover in his home. The young woman in Rigoletto's house is in fact his daughter, Gilda, whom he dearly loves. The relationship between father and daughter is at the heart of RIGOLETTO, a motif often revisited in the operas of Verdi, a man who sadly never achieved an estate of happy fatherhood in his own life.
The courtiers conspire with the Duke to play a joke on Rigoletto. Believing that Gilda is Rigoletto's lover, the womanizing Duke disguises himself and takes advantage of her. Tragically, the naive Gilda falls in love with him. After realizing the Duke has seduced his daughter, Rigoletto tries to cover his despair and anger with jokes, but determines to take revenge and hires Sparafucile, an assassin, to kill the Duke. [Rigoletto loses his sense of life. Gilda was for him the only beam of light among the low passions of his work, which he was forced by nature to do. This dilemma is the "curse" of Rigoletto. Verdi had first intended to entitle the opera THE CURSE, but later decided upon RIGOLETTO.
The character of Rigoletto stands at the center of the opera in all his complexity and inconsistency. Deformed in outward appearance, he nonetheless cherishes a secret that makes up the better half of his nature; his emotions as an anxious, loving father. The original play has passages where the spoken word is inadequate to do justice to his feelings. In the opera, the eloquence of song and the intensity of the orchestral sound are essential in projecting the portrayal of the broken hearted father's suffering and the complex depiction of his mental conflict. In his notes Verdi wrote "For my part, I would like to see the character shown as deformed and ridiculous in outward appearance, but passionate and full of love within. It is for these qualities that I chose the subject."
When Gilda understands that her father has hired an assassin to kill the Duke, she decides to die in his place. Disguised as a man, she replaces the Duke. To the play of Victor Hugo, Verdi adds the theme of predestination. Rigoletto is punished first by fate, by his physical deformity, and secondly because of his disgraceful position of "fool" in society. His conspiracy with the criminal Sparafucile and desire for revenge secure his tragic destiny. His beloved daughter dies because of his own assassination order.
The story is a work of art presenting an excellent balance between the light and shadows of human emotions, between drama and comedy, between honesty and deception. As the drama gradually unfolds against this backdrop of contrasts, the truth emerges and the opera concludes with the (predestined) destruction of the unhappy heroes–Rigoletto and Gilda, who symbolically represent man’s relationship to his eternal soul. Rigoletto's deformity mirrors his internal spiritual crisis and imbalance. He betrays his own heart, resulting in the dissolution of his personality and the loss of his soul.