Master Operas-Verdi Rigoletto
Between March 11, 1851, and March 6, 1853, Verdi, already a popular hero in Italy, stepped up just one more rung in the ladder of fame. On the first mentioned date Rigoletto was produced in Venice, and on the latter La Traviata was performed in the same city, while in January of 1853 Ill Trovatore was given in Rome for the first time. The production of three masterpieces of opera in so short a time is nothing less than sheer genius of a high order. Verdi was at the time thirty eight years of age and at the very zenith of his melodic fecundity.
His fascinating melodies had endeared him to his countrymen but he realized that, in order to hold a higher position in his art than his contemporaries, he would have to develop greatly his technique. His efforts enabled him to enter what many regard as the second period of Verdi’s creative life. Professor Niecks, in the London Monthly Musical Record for February, 1909, gave a very good definition of Verdi’s composition at this time. He says it was in “the traditional Italian style, but, compared with his earlier operas, those of this period are more refined in manner, more strikingly dramatic, more pointedly expressive, and formally more perfect.”
Victor Hugo’s Le Roi S’Amuse is generally conceded to be one of his most sensational melodramas. Produced upon the theatrical stage in this day, the work would have scant chance with critics brought up on Shaw, Barker, Galsworthy, to say nothing of Ibsen. It is frank melodrama from beginning to end, but with many lines, scenes and episodes characteristic of the great French genius.
The libretto of Rigoletto was taken from Le Roi S’Amuse by Francesco Maria Piave. In its operatic garb it makes ideal material along the old-fashioned, conventional lines. In any event it seemed to inspire the Italian master with a really astonishing series of interesting melodies as well as some exceedingly strong numbers. We are willing, even after a fare of Wagner, Strauss, Debussy et Cie, to forget some of the commonplace seconds in the work, for many of the glorious minutes. After the production of the work in Venice in 1851 it was given in London in 1853, in Paris in 1857, and in New York in the same year.
The singers who took the leading roles at the premiere are now well-nigh forgotten. However, it has served as the vehicle for the debut of many singers at the Metropolitan and at Chicago. It was this opera that introduced Caruso to the American public, as the Duke, in 1903, and Galli-Curci as Gilda, at Chicago, in 1916. Although seventy years old, the work ranks with Il Trovatore and Aida as among the most popular of all Verdi’s works.
The character of the court jester is in great demand by dramatic baritones, as it was by great actors in former days. In the English version by Tom Taylor the role was a very great favorite with Edwin Booth. Among famous Gildas have been Patti, Melba, Tetrazzini and many others.
The opera was first known as Viscardello, and because the Hugo drama in its original form was prohibited in France because the original Duke was Francis I(, the librettist cleverly (?) altered the geography and the history to Mantua – a slight license in grand opera.
The Story of “Rigoletto”
The story is the world old one of retribution visited on the wrong doer. Incidents revolting in their baseness, are made presentable only by Verdi’s masterful music.
Act I, Scene I: Ballroom in the Palace of the Duke of Mantua. The licentious Duke sings a boastful song of his questionable conquests. Count Monterone forces an entrance, demanding redress for his daughter’s dishonor. Mocked by Rigoletto, the court jester and pander, Monterone pronounces on him a fervid “malediction,” the pivot of the plot.
Act I, Scene II: A deserted street, by the palace wall. Rigoletto, before his cottage, recalls with terror the curse. Here, secluded for her safety, he visits his daughter and idol, Gilda. The Duke, has watched suspiciously Rigoletto’s absences, discovered Gilda, and, disguised as a poor student, won her heart. To avenge Rigoletto’s insults at the ball, the Duke and Ceprano plot the abduction of Gilda whome they mistake to be his mistress; even, on the pretext that it is Ceprano’s wife they seek, enlisting Rigoletto’s aid.
Act II: A room in the Dukes palace. The Duke laments the disappearance of Gilda, then learns through the chorus of courtiers that she is in the palace. Rigoletto enters denouncing the abductors of his daughter and discovers her presence. Gilda appears, relates her undoing and amid the vengeful threatenings of Rigoletto pleads for mercy for the betrayer she loves.
Act III: A deserted spot on the banks of the Mincio. Gilda and Rigoletto, the latter bent on revenge, visit the hut of Sparafucile, a mercenary assassin. The Duke has been attracted by Maddalena, the beautiful sister of Sparafucile, and now is with her making love while outside Rigoletto plots his destruction. Gilda learns of the plan to murder the Duke, presents herfels at the door of the cottage in his stead and is stabbed. Rigoletto appears, pays the agreed bribe, receives a sack containing a body which he is about to throw into the river when he hears the Duke’s voice, tears open the sack and discovers Gilda breathing her last. The “malediction” has fallen.