Rigoletto: Verdi’s Shakespearean Tragedy

Article by Katherine Camiller

It is 1850, and Verdi is commissioned by the Fenice Theatre in Venice to compose a new work for their forthcoming season.  For some years, Verdi had shown an interest in Hugo’s Le Roi s’amuse, and it is on this work that the composer and his librettist Piave eventually decide to base their next opera.

After an arduous battle with the censors due to perceived political references, Rigoletto would finally be premiered in March 1851.  It would be met with enormous success and would later be heralded by many as signifying the start of his ‘middle period’ of operatic writing.  Verdi himself would refer to the piece as his ‘best opera’, even after the successes of Il trovatore and La Traviata.  Undoubtedly a large part of the opera’s popularity is a result of its perfectly conceived drama, something Verdi had learnt from arguably the greatest dramatist of them all: Shakespeare.

Neither nobleman nor soldier: the jester Rigoletto makes a rather unusual operatic hero.  Other Verdian baritone protagonists such as Macbeth (Macbeth, 1847) or the Count di Luna (Il trovatore, 1853) overshadow the hunchbacked fool with their wealth and power.  Yet it is precisely this that drew Verdi to Victor Hugo’s tale of a jester’s desperate struggle to protect his daughter from being seduced by the King (who would become the Duke in Verdi’s opera).  Here, at last, Verdi had found a truly human drama with a number of opportunities for successfully applying comedy to highlight and heighten the tragedy.  He described Hugo’s play as ‘one of the greatest subjects and perhaps the greatest drama of modern times’ whose central character was ‘a creation worthy of Shakespeare’.  This was high praise indeed – Verdi’s love of Shakespeare is well documented.  He is known to have kept a well-thumbed copy of Shakespeare’s works by his bedside, and three of his operas (Macbeth, Otello and Falstaff) are based directly on Shakespeare plays.

As Shakespeare had frequently done in his works, Verdi centres on the portrayal of humanity in Rigoletto.  Conventions are upturned and stylised symbols are abandoned.  Virtuoso vocal displays are avoided – any show stopping high notes heard in performance are the singers’ interpolations and do not appear in Verdi’s score.  Instead, the composer is more concerned with characterisation.  Take Rigoletto’s soliloquy ‘Pari siamo’.  At this point in the opera, Rigoletto describes his anxiety over the curse that Monterone has laid upon him and his despair at having to play the fool at the Duke’s palace to a ‘flattering group of courtiers’.  Where less adventurous composers may have seized this as an opportunity to pack in another aria at this point, Verdi writes no memorable melodies but instead a series of dramatic exclamations whose frequent changes of time signature create a breathless pace, providing a psychological insight into the character.  Here is the working of a true man of the theatre.

Rigoletto is an opera driven by dramatic contrast, principally between comedy and tragedy.  Again, this is an approach frequently employed by Shakespeare in his tragedies – the porter’s scene in Macbeth and Mercutio’s witty and at times bawdy interjections in Romeo and Juliet are examples of this (note too that Mercutio, figure of comedy, is transformed into a figure of tragedy when Romeo kills him).  This oscillation between the comic and the tragic is used as a structural tool in Rigoletto.  The ominous overture based on Monterone’s curse theme abruptly gives way to the festive banda music of the opening scene, set in the Duke’s luxurious palace. This is in turn interrupted by a full statement of the curse theme when Monterone enters.  The following scene takes place in the shadowy darkness outside Rigoletto’s house at night and is introduced by the assassin Sparafucile, who offers Rigoletto his services.  Thoughts of murder quickly dissipate to thoughts of paternal love as Gilda joyfully rushes out to greet her father.  Comedy returns with the entrance of the courtiers in their chorus ‘Zitti, zitti’ as they plot to perform the ultimate prank and outwit the jester by tricking him into helping them kidnap his own daughter.  The scene ends with tragedy when Rigoletto realises to his horror what has happened.  The second act takes place back at the Duke’s palace.  The prankster courtiers delight in giving an account of their trick on Rigoletto.  Enter Rigoletto, who attempts to disguise his despair with comic insolence by singing ‘La rà, la rà’ but fools nobody.  As the scene develops so too does Rigoletto’s desperation to find his daughter.  The final act, by contrast, begins with the carefree Duke flirting with Maddalena in Sparafucile’s dilapidated inn.  He jokes and sings the blithe ‘La donna è mobile’.  Next follows the famous quartet in which Rigoletto tries to comfort his heartbroken daughter as she witnesses her philandering Duke seducing Maddalena.  Comedy and tragedy do not alternate here but are instead intertwined – this is the ultimate synthesis of the comic and tragic.  In the final moments of the opera, Verdi inverts an earlier comic device for tragic effect.  As Rigoletto carries out the body of what he thinks is the Duke, he hears the Duke’s song ‘La donna è mobile’ in the distance.  It is on hearing this that Rigoletto opens the sack and discovers the body is in fact that of his beloved daughter.  The song that had earlier been used to heighten the comedy of the scene is now used to contrast with the tragedy of Gilda’s death and as a result make Rigoletto’s misery all the more poignant.

In characterisation this contrast between the comic and the tragic continues.  Like the opera itself, Rigoletto the man is at the same time a figure of comedy – Verdi names him after the French ‘rigoler’, to laugh – and of tragedy.  His comic mocking of Monterone’s defence of his daughter’s honour results in Monterone laying a curse on him – the same curse that Rigoletto names as the cause of his own tragedy at the end of the opera.  The two central male characters are inverted versions of each other: Rigoletto plays the fool but is presented as a tragic hero, and the Duke plays the wealthy nobleman but is presented as the fool.  Similarly, Rigoletto compares himself with Sparafucile after the two have met for the first time:

We are alike! I with my tongue, he with his dagger;
I am the man who laughs, he is the one who kills!
(Pari siamo! Io la lingua, egli ha il pugnale;
L’uomo son io che ride, ei quell che spegne!)

The same contrast in characterisation is true of the female cast – the prostitute Maddalena is set up as an antithesis to the chaste Gilda.  Although both are seduced by the Duke and both resort to desperate means in order to save his life (Maddalena by persuading Sparafucile to murder the first person to knock at the door of the inn instead of the sleeping Duke, and Gilda by sacrificing her own life for his), Maddalena’s carefree lifestyle and sexual awareness set her apart from Gilda’s virginal innocence.  Maddalena’s worldly wisdom is revealed when, during the Act III quartet, she tells the Duke:

“You’re a lying sort of lover,
All these compliments are easy.
If you think you can deceive me
I must tell you I’m no fool.
Men are easily discovered
When they do not tell the truth”.
(Ah! Ah! Rido ben di core,
Chè tai baie costan poco;
Quanto valga il vostro giuoco,
Mel credete, so apprezzar.
Sono avvezza, bel signore,
Ad un simile scherzare)

On hearing this, Gilda realises her own naivety:

“Oh, I thought you were my lover.
How could I believe your lying!”
(Ah cosi parlar d’amore
A me pur l’infame ho udito!)

Of all of Shakespeare’s plays, it is King Lear that had the strongest impact on Verdi.  As early as 1843, the composer had shown an interest in writing a work based on Shakespeare’s play, and in 1850 prepared a detailed scenario, which he sent to his librettist Salvatore Cammarano along with a letter.  ‘We must not make King Lear into the usual kind of opera,’ he wrote.  ‘We can treat it in a completely new manner, on a large scale, without regard to conventions of any kind’.  However, a combination of Cammarano’s death in 1852 and a number of other commissions meant that the project remained untouched for another three years.  In 1853, the playwright Antonio Somma wrote to Verdi hoping to collaborate with him on an opera, and so work on a Lear recommenced.  Playwright and composer worked closely together over the course of two years and eventually produced a libretto.  Verdi would spend the rest of his career reworking parts of this libretto and attempting to complete the music for it, but all that would be produced was a series of sketches that would be destroyed at his death in 1901 in accordance with his wishes.  It is likely that Verdi made economical use of these sketches by weaving fragments into his other scores, but surely the influence of his lifelong fascination with King Lear over his completed projects stretches beyond just musical terms? Verdi, after all, considered music a tool to be used to heighten drama.  Nowhere is this infiltration of King Lear more apparent than in Rigoletto.

The most obvious similarity between Lear and Rigoletto is the pivotal use of the role of the fool.  Both play and opera centre on the relationship between fool and master.  It is because of their roles as jesters that Lear’s Fool and Rigoletto are allowed to ridicule those of superior social standing without fear of recrimination – Rigoletto boasts to the Duke and his courtiers in Act I: ‘I have your protection.  People don’t scare me.  I have your protection and no one dare touch me’ (Che coglier mi puote? Di loro non temo; del Duca un protetto nessun toccherà).  Lear’s Fool chastises the King in Act I scene 5:

“Fool: If thou wert my Fool, Nuncle, I’d have thee beaten for being old before thy time.
Lear: How’s that?
Fool: Thou should’st not have been old till thou hadst been wise.
Lear: O! Let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven; Keep me in temper; I would not be mad!”

Similarly, Rigoletto insults Count Monterone in Act I and accuses him of madness:

Are you out of your mind now… to come and blabber
About your daughter and her beloved honour?
(Qual vi piglia or delirio… a tutte l’ore
di vostra figlia a reclamar l’onore?)

Rigoletto’s mocking of Monterone is translated into musical terms where the hunchback adopts Monterone’s declamatory style and long, low notes, likened by Monterone to ‘thunder shaking your heart’s foundations’ (tuono vi scuoterà dovunque).

In both, the catalyst for the eventual tragedy in the story is a father-daughter relationship – in King Lear between the King and Cordelia, and in Rigoletto between the jester and Gilda.  Both daughters are portrayed in similar ways – they are dutiful, pure, virginal, innocent.  In spite of the promise of a share of Lear’s kingdom and wealth, the King’s most beloved daughter Cordelia refuses to flatter her father like her more covetous sisters when he asks her how much she loves him, saying only that she loves him as much as a daughter should.  Similarly, in the Act I duet between Gilda and Rigoletto, Gilda’s great affection for her father is tenderly expressed through lines such as ‘If there was some way to make you more happy.    That’s all I want!’ (Ah, se può lieto rendervi, gioia è la vita a me!).  Musically, Gilda’s vocal line at this point is breathless and creates the effect of weeping.  At the end of both play and opera, the fathers carry their daughters’ bodies onstage.  Lear, having tried to convince both himself and those around him that the lifeless Cordelia in his arms is still breathing, collapses over his daughter and dies of sorrow.  Rigoletto, having pleaded with his dying daughter: ‘Pity your father, don’t leave me alone.  If you go, I have no one, I have nothing on earth.  If you die, I must die here with you’ (Mia colomba, lasciarmi non dei, se t’involi, qui sol, qui sol rimarrei, non morire o qui teco morrò!), is described in the score as ‘collapsing in despair, tearing his hair, beside his daughter’s body’.

Verdi may never have completed his  Lear, but Rigoletto certainly provided him with a means in which to vent some of his obsession with the play and its writer.  It is clear that Verdi was fascinated with not only King Lear but also with the role of the Fool.  His interest extended beyond just Rigoletto – the Fool would return in the guise of Oscar in Un ballo in maschera in 1859, and then in his final work Falstaff in 1893.  Rigoletto is a milestone in Verdi’s oeuvre not only because it demonstrates a more mature approach to operatic writing.  Verdi had produced a tragedy of Shakespearean proportion.