Verdi’s Rigoletto

Article by Clare Colvin

At night in Mantua the sparsely lit, high-walled streets conjure up phantom images of a lurking Sparafucile.  The smooth waters of the River Mincio have provided an anonymous grave for bodies over the centuries.  Giulio Romano’s erotic frescoes of unbridled debauchery at the Palazzo del Te reveal a startling picture of ducal tastes.  The North Italian renaissance city surrounded by water seems an ideal background for Rigoletto.  Yet Verdi had never meant to set his revenge drama in Mantua in the first instance.

In fact, the opera has a universal quality that lends itself to differing times and place.  Essential to the setting is an enclosed society in thrall to an alpha male figure with power over others, an atmosphere of paranoia and back-stabbing among the planets circling his sun, plus a twisted notion of morality.  Summed up like that, it sounds like a corporate enterprise at almost any time – on either side of the law.  Verdi took the subject for his opera from Victor Hugo’s play Le Roi s’amuse, which is set in the court of King François I of France.  The King’s jester is called Triboulet.  Saint-Vallier, whose daughter Diane de Poitiers was seduced by the King, is the Monterone figure.  On his first reading of the play, Verdi’s reaction was unequivocally: “Yes, by God, that’s the right one!”

Approached by Venice’s Teatro La Fenice to create a new opera for the carnival season of 1850-51 he wrote to the librettist attached to La Fenice, the poet Francesco Maria Piave, about Hugo’s play, “If the police were prepared to allow it would be one of the greatest creations of the modern theatre”.  It was moreover, he enthused, “the greatest subject and perhaps the greatest drama of modern times.  Triboulet is a creation worth of Shakespeare!”

Piave was urged to get the subject approved by the Austrian authorities controlling Venice as quickly as possible.  Piave did take soundings, but only by word of mouth, which proved inadequate when the censors actually read the libretto.  Verdi was right to have been uneasy, given the earlier history of Le Roi s’amuse.  After its first night at the Comedie Francaise in 1832, Hugo’s five act verse drama had been banned by the French censor for the lese majeste of portraying a monarch as a libertine.    The restoration of the monarchy under Louis-Philippe had heightened conservative sensitivity, and the third act sight of Francois Premier in a dressing gown brought uproar from the audience that drowned most of the remaining dialogue.  The play was accused of outraging public morality, and although Hugo was allowed to publish the text, it was not performed again until 1882.

Apart from his fascination with the complex main character, Verdi had other reasons to be emotionally committed to the opera.  He had been bereaved in the two years between 1838 and 1840 by the deaths of his wife Marguerita and their two children, 17 month old Virginia and her younger brother Icilio.  Father/daughter relationships became a theme in his operas, of which Rigoletto is a supreme example.  Verdi had abandoned his plans to write an opera about King Lear and his daughters for the father/daughter relationship of Rigoletto.  Towards the end of his life he was still contemplating an opera on Shakespeare’s Lear.

Reassured by Piave, and despite already having had problems with the censors about the scene in Stiffelio where a Protestant minister publicly forgives his wife for her adultery, Verdi set to work on sketching out the vocal line to the libretto of La maledizione (The Curse), as it was named initially.  He had believed the submission to the censors to be a mere formality, and erupted in fury when he heard that the subject had been forbidden, because of its “repellent immorality and obscene triviality”.

While Verdi fired off letters fuming at the Venetian poet’s lack of groundwork, Piave negotiated with the police official who had signed the censor’s report, in an effort to overthrow the total ban by devising a more acceptable plot.  Francois I was turned into the Duke of Ventignano; there was no specific plot to have him murdered; the jester (now called Triboletto) lost his hump; and Gilda was to be spared from being thrust into a sack.  Verdi refused to compromise.  “The Duke is a nonentity,” he wrote after reading the new version.  “The Duke absolutely must be a libertine; without that there can be no justification for Triboletto’s fear that his daughter might come out of her hiding place”.

Of the ban on the sack, Verdi wrote: “I don’t understand why the sack should have been taken out.  How does the sack concern the police?  Are they afraid it won’t be effective?  Might I be permitted to ask why they suppose themselves to be better judges in the matter than I?”

As for avoiding an ugly and hunchbacked Triboletto: “Putting on the stage a character who is grossly deformed and absurd but inwardly passionate and full of love is precisely what I feel to be so fine.  I chose this subject precisely for those qualities, and if they are taken away I can no longer write music for it.  If you tell me that my music can stay the same even with this drama I reply that I don’t understand this kind of reasoning, and I must say frankly that whether my music is good or bad I don’t write it at random, but I always try to give it a definite character”.

The censors eventually saw the point and a compromise was worked out, changing the locale and period but keeping the characters and situations as in the original play.  One further requirement of the censor was that the Duke should not be mentioned by name, but only by title.

Verdi lived for many years at Busseto near Parma, neighbouring state to Mantua, and the decision to choose Mantua was influenced by his knowledge of the colourful Gonzaga family’s history, as well as the fact that Mantua was no longer independent and there were no living Dukes to offend.  There was more than one reprobate to choose from among the Gonzaga Dukes – the front runners in the libertine stakes being Federico II, 1st Duke (1500-1540) and Vincenzo I, 4th Duke of Mantua (1562-1612).  Additionally, the Gonzaga and the Este of Ferrara, with whom they inter-married, were enthusiastic patrons of jesters, dwarfs, actors, singers – anyone, indeed, who could keep them amused.

The 1st Duke, Federico II was the one who had commissioned Giulio Romano to paint the erotic frescoes of the Palazzo del Te, a summer palace built for his mistress, Isabella Boschetta.  The blonde bimbo portrayed as the bride in the fresco of the marriage between Eros and Psyche is reputed to be a likeness of Boschetta.  The pleasure-seeking Federico inherited his astuteness about art from his mother Isabella d’Este and his sensual nature from his father the Marquis Francesco II.  Federico was patron to the poet and satirist Pietro Aretino, who is remembered as the originator of European pornography for his book of explicit sonnets on sixteen sexual positions, graphically illustrated by Giulio Romano.

Federico’s grandson Vincenzo I (1562-1612), mentioned in a letter by Piave, is another likely model for Rigoletto’s Duke.  He was notoriously dissipated in his youth and as a ruler was addicted to shows of magnificence, whatever the cost.  His reign was a glorious 25-year spree of theatrical extravaganzas, art collecting and quixotic crusades against the Turk in Hungary.  He housed one of his mistresses at the Palazzo del Te, to the chagrin of the Duchess, Eleonora de’ Medici.  In later years, Eleonora’s uncle, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, wrote to warn her that a common criminal in Mantua, whose step-daughter the Duke was seeing, had boasted the Duke’s life was his to dispose of for a large enough sum.  As with his great-grandmother, Isabella d’Este, Vincenzo had an eye for artistic talent as well and was patron to Rubens and Monteverdi.  The Duke’s less elevated taste for burlesque comedy was catered for by a troupe of performing dwarfs.

Dwarfs were frequently jesters at Italian courts, and one reason they may have been indulged for their outspokenness was that they could not physically look down on a prince.  A favourite at the Mantuan court of Marquis Francesco II was Nanino, “Little Dwarf”.  A letter written by Francesco in 1512 takes Nanino to task for his outrageous behaviour that included mocking a priest and addressing “villainous words” to the company.  Another Mantuan jester was Il Matello (Little Madman) whom Isabella d’Este sent to amuse her brother Alfonso in Ferrara, when he was ill.  The traffic in jesters was still going on 25 years later, when Alfonso, now Duke of Ferrara, sent a letter to his nephew Duke Federico II of Mantua, thanking him for the loan of one Fra Stephano whose pleasantries “suffice to provide ample entertainment at any great court and to keep the company merry and in good cheer”.

The jester envisaged by Hugo/Verdi was a very different creature from the mischievous but essentially benign jesters of the Mantua and Ferrara courts.  Rigoletto’s character is warped by his physical appearance and by the tragedy in his life after the death of the one woman who had cared for him, the mother of his daughter Gilda.  His behaviour is reprehensible, whatever the mitigating circumstances.  He loves Gilda, but his treatment of her is selfish and abusive.  She is locked up in the house and not even allowed to know her father’s name, such is his paranoia of the corruption at court, in which he himself is an instigator.  He taunts Monterone whose daughter has been seduced and abandoned by the Duke.

Though he is shocked by the curse Monterone hurls at him for making sport of a father’s grief, it doesn’t prevent him aiding the courtiers when he comes across them at night outside the Ceprano palazzo, ostensibly to kidnap Count Ceprano’s wife for the Duke.  It is at this point the old man’s maledizione first comes home to Rigoletto, as he is literally hoodwinked into helping the conspirators raise the ladder to the walls of his own house.  The Monterone curse permeates the last, storm-ridden finale when the vengeance planned for the Duke falls upon Rigoletto’s beloved daughter.

Yet such is the empathy and passion with which Verdi writes the music, it is impossible not to feel for Rigoletto as he searches desperately for his lost daughter in the face of the court’s mockery – culminating in the moment when he reveals that the woman they suppose to be his mistress is actually his daughter, and the suddenly shamed courtiers echo, “La sua figlia!” The duets with Gilda after her seduction are imbued with paternal tenderness as in “Solo per me l’infamia” and the cantabile “Piangi, fanciulla”.

Verdi paints his revenge drama in subtle shades.  The Duke is a pleasure-loving predator, not averse to imprisoning or executing those who stand in his way.  Yet instead of giving him the conventional baddie vocal category of baritone, Verdi makes him a romantic tenor, and awards him one of the most lyrical arias he wrote – certainly the best known – in “La donna e mobile”.  Verdi was aware of its show-stealing quality and while rehearsing the premiere he withheld it until the last possible moment to preserve its impact for the first night.  He is said to have asked Raffaele Mirate, who was to create the role of the Duke, not to practice it anywhere outside the theatre.

The baritone Felice Varesi, who had created the title role of Macbeth in 1847 created the role of Rigoletto and Teresina Brambilla was Gilda.  On the opening night Varesi, who was uncomfortable with the false hump he had to wear, had a panic attack when it was his turn to enter the stage.  Verdi, watching from the wings, immediately saw his trouble and pushed him roughly onto the stage.  The premiere at La Fenice on 11 March 1851 was a triumph and the opera has remained firmly in the world repertoire ever since.

Rigoletto marked Verdi’s “high noon”, the period when he wrote his three most popular operas Rigoletto (Venice, 1851), Il Trovatore (Rome, 1853) and La traviata (Venice, 1853).  These works in his middle years coincided with a more settled time in his life when he moved to his farm at Sant’Agata in the Po Valley with the opera singer Giuseppina Strepponi, with whom he had lived from1847 and married in 1859.  Towards the end of his life, Verdi was asked which of his many works he preferred.  He replied firmly, “Rigoletto, without a doubt!”

Clare Colvin is opera critic for the Sunday Express.  Her novel Masque of the Gonzagas is published by Arcadia Books.