Program notes by Paul Zweifel
Giuseppe Verdi wrote three of his four most popular operas in a period of two years, from 1851 (Rigoletto) to 1853 (Il Trovatore and La Traviata). The fourth of the "big four", Aida, didn't appear for another 18 years. But Verdi was far from idle between 1853 and 1871, writing five other operas in that period1 which, while still performed regularly, are not considered to be in the same league as the big four. The years from 1851 to 1853 may truly be considered Verdi's anni mirabiles.
Rigoletto was commissioned in 1850 by Teatro La Fenice in Venice. After considering a number of other possible subjects (including the Spanish drama which ultimately became Il Trovatore) Verdi decided to set Victor Hugo's play Le Roi s'amuse, i.e. "The King enjoys himself." The Hugo play tells about the lecherous French King Francois I who rapes Blanche, the daughter of his hunch-backed jester, Triboulet. It ran for exactly one performance in Paris in 1832 before the Minister of Public Works shut it down as "offensive to public morals." Verdi's opera had similar difficulties with the Austrian censors. (Most of northern Italy was an Austrian province in those days.) It was ruled impermissible to portray a King on the stage in such an unflattering light, so Verdi and his librettist Francesco Piave compromised by moving the action from Paris to Mantua and changing the King to a Duke. (Perhaps in order to retain some of the French flavor of the play, Verdi introduced a dance of French origin, the licentious "Perigordino," into the first scene. He also makes the assassin Sparafucile French, from Burgandy.) Although this is not made explicit in the text of the opera, most Verdi scholars believe that the Duke is intended to be Vincenzo Gonzaga, 1562-1612. Gonzaga was the patron of the composer Claudio Monteverdi, who in 1600 produced, in the Gonzaga court, L'Orfeo, the earliest opera still seen in performance.2
King Francois I (1494-1547, ruled 1515-1547) is of considerable historical interest in his own right. He was France's first Renaissance monarch, and was a great rival of Henry VIII of England, his contemporary. Francois became a major patron of the arts; three great Italian Artists: among others Leonardo Da Vinci, Andrea del Sarto and Benvenuto Cellini worked for Francois. When Leonardo arrived in France he brought the Mona Lisa with him to the Louvre (which Francois had renovated as the French royal residence); the painting remains there to this day. His patronage of the arts and of exploration of the New World along with his penchant for fighting wars (mostly with Italy) eventually drove France into financial ruin.
Much of Verdi's libretto is translated more-or-less directly from the Hugo play. For example, the Duke's famous third-act aria "La donna è mobile" comes straight out of Act IV, Scene II of the play ("Souvent femme varie, bien fol est qui s'y fie").3 Similarly, Rigoletto's great second act aria "Cortigiani" is a very accurate translation of Trioboulet's monologue in Act III, Scene II of the play, "Courtisans! Courtisans! dèmons! race damnèe!" Similarly, the famous Rigloetto quartet is found in then play (Act IV, Scene II). There is, however, no analogue of Gilda's great aria "Caro nome" in the play; this was added as a typical operatic rendering (the soprano must have a bravura aria.)
Obviously, there had to be some cuts to fit a five-act play into an opera. Reading the play one gets a little more insight into what is really going on. We learn, for example that Blanche (Gilda in the opera) is only 15 years old, two years older than Juliet, and the same age as Butterfly. Also, Blanche lives in the Louvre as the King's mistress for a month after her original abduction, a point not made clear in the opera. This gives her enough time to fall so much in love with the King that she eventually sacrifices her life for his. Then in the final scene after Blanche has died, her father, still hoping to save her, calls frantically for a physician. Finally one appears, and pronounces Blanche dead. The play then ends with Triboulet's words "J'ai tué mon enfant! (I have killed my child!) This emotionally charged scene is perhaps too tragic for the close of an opera, or at least Verdi must have thought so.
One can also infer a time line for the opera from the play. Blanche-Gilda has been living in the French wine village of Chinon (in the Loire valley) thinking her father to be dead. Presumably her mother had died when she was about two years old and her father had gone to Paris to seek work thinking it "more prudent" to leave her behind. Triboulet refers several times in the play to her blonde hair as a child, now dark, so he did know her as a child, but apparently she had no real memory of him.
Just two months before the action of the play beigns Triboulet sends for Blanche because he "needed a heart to love him." (The two months of the play becomes, for some reason, three months in the opera.) Kathleen Zweifel, my co-supertitlist, has suggested that Blanche's nurse (Dame Berarde in the play, Giovanna in the opera) was also the person in Chinon to whom Gilda was entrusted, but this is only speculation. Certainly Blanche and Dame Berarde are very close for having known each other such a short time; for example, Blanche confides how she has been decieving her father concerning the young man she has been seeing in church, apparently without fear of having her secret divulged.
Verdi originally called his jester "Triboletto," an Italianized version of Triboulet. Eventually the name was changed to "Rigoletto" which derives from the French word rigoler, "to laugh." Why did Hugo make Triboulet a hunchback? Did he have a thing for hunchbacks (as Quasimodo)? Actually, in those days jesters were usually men with physical deformities, dwarfs, hunchbacks, etc. Four hundred years ago, as sick as it may seem to us today, people considered physical handicaps to be funny.
There is a famous story about La donna è mobile, namely that Verdi withheld the music even from the tenor until the final dress rehearsal (for fear that the gondoliers would learn it and start singing it all over Venice before the opera opened). This is probably not true. But this aria certainly has become Verdi's signature piece and the opera itself vies with La Traviata and Aida as Verdi's most popular. (The off-stage reprise of La donna è mobile, just as Rigoletto is about to throw in the river what he thinks is the Duke's body, is perhaps the most dramatic moment in all opera.) When the Metropolitan Opera managed to lure the sensational young Neapolitan tenor, Enrico Caruso, to New York, he made his house debut as the Duke of Mantua. This famous performance took place just over 100 years ago, on Nov. 23, 1903.
1, The Sicilian Vespers, Simon Boccanegra, The Masked Ball, La Forza del Destino and Don Carlo(s). Naming some operas in Italian and some in English follows a standard practice whose origin is shrouded in mystery.
2. Opera Roanoke presented a very well-received L'Orfeo in September, 1996.
3. "How often a woman varies, who trusts one is really crazy."