Rigoletto is an opera in three acts by Giuseppe Verdi. The Italian libretto was written by Francesco Maria Piave based on the play Le roi s'amuse by Victor Hugo. It was first performed at La Fenice in Venice on March 11, 1851. According to Opera America, Rigoletto is now North America's ninth most performed opera.
History of composition
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 play Kean by Alexandre Dumas, père, but he felt he needed a more energetic subject to work on.
Verdi soon stumbled upon Victor Hugo's Le roi s'amuse. He later 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. 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 the summer of 1850, some rumors 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, assuring them that the censor's doubts about the morality of the work were not justified but since very little time was left, very little could be done. The work was secretly called by the composers The Malediction (or The Curse), 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 all their work, Piave tried to revise the libretto and was even able to pull from it another opera Il Duca di Vendome, in which the sovereign was substituted with a duke and both the hunchback and the curse disappeared. Verdi was completely against this proposed solution and preferred instead to have direct negotiations with censors, arguing over each and every point of the work.
At this point Brenna, La Fenice's secretary, showed the Austrians some letters and articles depicting the bad character but the great value of the artist, helping to mediate the dispute. In the end the parties were able to agree that the action of the opera had to be moved from the royal court of France to a duchy of France or Italy, as well as a renaming of the characters. 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 premiere, Verdi had Felice Varesi as Rigoletto, the young tenor Raffaele Mirate as the Duke, and Teresina Brambilla as Gilda (though Verdi would have preferred Teresa De Giuli Borsi). Teresina Brambilla was a well-known soprano coming from a family of singers and musicians; one of her nieces, 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.
Due to the high risk of unauthorised copying, Verdi had demanded the maximum secrecy from all his singers and musicians. Mirate had use of his score 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".
Giulia Cori, the daughter of the Varesi, many years later described her father's performance at the premiere. Her father, the original Rigoletto, was really uncomfortable with the false hump he had to wear; he was so uncertain that, even though he was quite an experienced singer, he 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.
Act I Scene i: A room in the palace. The Duke has seen an unknown beauty in the church and desires to possess her. He also pays court to the Countess Ceprano. Rigoletto, the hunchbacked jester of the Duke, mocks the husbands of the ladies to whom the Duke is paying attention, and advises the Duke to get rid of them by prison or death. The noblemen resolve to take vengeance on Rigoletto, especially Count Monterone, whose daughter the Duke had dishonoured. Monterone curses the Duke and Rigoletto.
Scene ii: 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. Rigoletto contemplates the similarities between the two of them - Sparafucile uses his sword, Rigoletto his tongue and wits to fight. The hunchback opens a door in the wall and visits his daughter Gilda, whom he is concealing from the prince and the rest of the city. 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 Duke enters, hearing Gilda confess to her nurse Giovanna that she feels guilty for not having told her father about a student she had met at the church, but that she would love him more if he were poor. Just as she declares her love, the Duke enters, overjoyed, convincing Gilda of his love, though she resists at first. When she asks for his name, he hesitantly calls himself Gualtier Maldé. Steps are overheard and, fearing that her father has returned, Gilda sends the Duke away after they quickly repeat their love vows to each other. 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, collapsing, remembers the curse.
Act II: The Duke hears that Gilda has been abducted. 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, declaring that at last, she will know the truth and that he would give up his wealth and position for her who had first inspired him to really love. The noblemen, at first perplexed by the Duke's strange excitement, now make sport of Rigoletto. He tries to find Gilda by singing, and as he fears she may fall into the hands of the Duke, at last acknowledges that she is his daughter, to general astonishment. Gilda arrives and begs her father to send the people away, and acknowledges to him the shame she feels of finding out his profession. The act ends with Rigoletto's oath of vengeance against his master.
Act III: 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 Duke in the house of the bandit amusing himself with Sparafucile's sister Maddalena, half-drunk in despair over losing Gilda. The Duke then sings the most famous aria of the opera, La donna e mobile, explaining the indifelty and fickle nature of women. Rigoletto bargains with the bandit, who is ready to murder his guest, whom he does not know, for money. 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 Duke, whom she still loves, despite believing him to be unfaithful. Rigoletto offers the bandit 20 scudi for the death of the Duke. As a thunderstorm is approaching, the Duke 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 Duke, that if by midnight another can be found to take the Duke's place he will spare his life. Gilda resolves to sacrifice herself for the Duke 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 Duke singing a reprise of his bitter aria 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 curse!" which is fulfilled upon both master and servant.
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