MUSIC BY GIUSEPPE VERDI. LIBRETTO BY FRANCESCO MARIA PIAVE AFTER VICTOR HUGO’S PLAY LE ROI S’AMUSE. PREMIERE: MARCH 11, 1851, TEATRO LA FENICE, VENICE. SUNG IN ITALIAN.
The operas of Giuseppe Verdi often come across as moving targets, hard to pin down into a single, definitive form. Quite a few present themselves in multiple guises, adapted by the composer to the exigencies of specific productions or performers, and sometimes changed just because Verdi felt an alteration would make the piece fundamentally better.
That did not happen with Rigoletto, which throughout his long life remained (at least in its musical content) just as it was when the composer unveiled it at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice, on March 11, 1851. It is true that he never oversaw a performance of Rigoletto personally following that first one, and that he might have been drawn to tinker with the piece if he had. Still, the work was mounted almost everywhere an opera could be mounted, and he could have suggested changes for any of these presentations if he had been so inclined. In fact, when the husband of Teresa De Giuli Borsi, one of Verdi’s favored sopranos, begged him to write his wife an extra aria for her to sing when she portrayed the leading role of Gilda in a revival, the composer declined: “If you could have convinced yourself that my talent limits me to being unable to do any better with Rigoletto than I’ve done already, you wouldn’t have asked me for another aria.” Verdi was content that he had gotten things right the first time. He had put tremendous effort into composing Rigoletto. Its point of departure was a French stage-play titled Le roi s’amuse (The King Has Fun), which the literary lion Victor Hugo had unleashed in Paris in 1832. It had been shut down by the French government censors after one performance, and it would not be seen again in France until 50 years later, when it was enlivened by incidental music written for the occasion by Léo Delibes. Hugo’s fictional tale centered on Triboulet, the humpbacked court jester to the 16th-century French King François I. In the preface he penned after the production was suspended, Hugo explained that Triboulet “hates the king because he is the king; hates the nobles because they are nobles, hates men because they don’t all have a hump-back. His only pleasure is to ceaselessly pit the nobles against the king, smashing the weaker against the stronger. He debauches, corrupts, and brutalizes the king; he urges him on to tyranny, ignorance, and vice; he drags him through all the gentlemen’s families, constantly pointing out a woman to seduce, a sister to kidnap, a girl to dishonor.”
Verdi was sure this would be excellent stuff for an opera, and in September 1849 he suggested it to the director of the Teatro San Carlo in Naples, a proposal that went nowhere. Constant hassles from the Neapolitan censors had been one of the reasons Donizetti had moved from Naples to Paris a decade earlier, and since then the stringent standards of the southern censors were being increasingly adopted by more northern Italian cities. Verdi knew he would have to grapple with these restrictions, and when he entered an agreement to write the opera he envisioned for the prestigious Teatro La Fenice in Venice, the issue of dealing with censors was placed squarely on the table.
To write the libretto he signed on Francesco Maria Piave, a sort of dramaturg on the staff at La Fenice. He had authored the texts for four previous Verdi operas — Ernani (also adapted from Hugo), I due
Foscari, Macbeth, and Il corsaro — and was already at work on a fifth, Stiffelio. Before things proceeded further, Verdi stressed that Piave needed to obtain a green light from the authorities about this potentially inflammatory tale. Piave got clearance from the Venetian Presidenza (essentially a committee of theater proprietors), but after the team became engrossed in their project, objections arrived from the military governor of Venice, who objected to the work’s “repulsive immorality and obscene triviality.” The composer and librettist effected abundant alterations, with Piave apparently hewing to his sturdy professionalism, and Verdi venting ire in his unbridled way. The provisional title, La maledizione (The Curse), morphed into Il duca di Vendome (The Duke of Vendôme); but Verdi found that version of the libretto so wanting that he asked Piave to return his fee. Ruffled feathers were smoothed enough to allow work to continue, and by the end of January 1851, the authorities officially approved the new opera, which would be set in the duchy of Mantua and would be titled Rigoletto.
It is not impossible for moderns to understand the concerns of the censors, who were, after all, entrusted with the responsibility of enforcing good taste. The Age of Romanticism was constantly pushing the boundaries in that regard, and Verdi was unflinching when it came to testing the limits. It is a horrifying tale. The jester Rigoletto ridicules a nobleman whose daughter has been deflowered by Rigoletto’s boss, the amoral Duke of Mantua, and the nobleman flings a deprecation back at him: “You who can laugh at this father’s sorrow, see how I curse you!” The Duke ends up seducing Gilda, the beloved daughter Rigoletto has locked up at home, sheltered from the evils of the world. Rigoletto seeks to do in the Duke, entrusting his murder to the shadowy hit man Sparafucile, one of the creepiest characters in all of opera. And, at the work’s shocking “dark and stormy night” conclusion, we learn along with Rigoletto that his scheme has not unrolled as he planned, that the hired assassin has knifed his beloved daughter rather than the deceitful duke, that the curse has been fulfilled.
By the time the censors granted their approval, Verdi already had the piece more or less finished either on paper (he had begun drafting it in November 1850) or in his head. He plunged into final work on the score, and rehearsals began in Venice about February 20, allowing enough time for the work to greet its first, astonished audience two and a half weeks later. It met with extraordinary success from the outset, being staged by more than 250 opera houses around the world during its first decade. Its problems with the censors were not completely over, to be sure, but these problems were not Verdi’s. Since Italy was not yet a unified country, many regional theaters had to get clearance from local authorities, some of whom demanded alterations. Almost always, the music stayed just as it was, although on at least one occasion a disgruntled cast member inserted an extra aria for herself, without the composer’s approval. The libretto was more pliable. It would be fascinating today if a company were to revive one of the many alter egos the piece assumed to meet the requirements of local authorities, such as Lionello (set in 16th-century Verona), Clara di Perth (moved to 1345, ostensibly based on Sir Walter Scott’s The Fair Maid of Perth, and distinctive in that the heroine does not die at the end), and Viscardello (with the Duke of Mantua changed into the Duke of Nottingham, and offering a choice of a happy ending or a sad one).
It is one of the few opera librettos that reads really well as a play. Most people today would probably find it more compelling as a stage piece than the five-act behemoth on which it was based. Ironically, some of the credit for that may actually redound to the censors, who forced Verdi and Piave to put the piece repeatedly through the crucible. But of course it is Verdi’s music that has kept audiences coming back. The score is peppered with some of opera’s most famous arias: the dreamy coloratura of Gilda’s “Caro nome,” the furious outburst of Rigoletto’s “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata,” the debonair bravado of the Duke’s “La donna è mobile.” Verdi was so sure he had hit a bull’s-eye with the last of these that even the tenor who had to sing it didn’t see the music until the dress rehearsal, a safeguard against its being leaked to the public prior to the premiere. It was a wise precaution: “Hardly had the first verse finished before there arose a cry from every part of the theatre,” wrote one eyewitness. Nonetheless, in his letter to Signor Borsi, in which he refused an extra aria, Verdi characterized the score as more of a through-flowing work: “I conceived Rigoletto without arias, without finales, as an unbroken chain of duets, because I was convinced that that was most suitable. If someone remarks, ‘But here you could have done this, there that’ etc. etc., I reply: that might be excellent, but I was unable to any better.”