Re­venger’s tragedy


Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - James M. Keller



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.”

Giuseppe Verdi

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