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Opera Essentials: Rigoletto

Our quick guide to Verdi's acclaimed tragedy.

By Kate Hopkins (Content Producer (Opera and Music))

29 August 2014 at 12.12pm | Comment on this article

The Story Begins…

A womanizing Duke's court jester mocks the father of one of the Duke’s victims, who curses him. Soon the jester’s own daughter falls in love with the Duke and is abducted – it seems that the curse is taking effect...

Political Dystopia

David McVicar’s production of Rigoletto reveals unflinchingly the corruption at the heart of the court of Mantua. Rigoletto’s appearance is inspired by a grotesque insect, and the lavishly-clothed courtiers and Duke happily engage in brutal orgies and later cruelly taunt both Rigoletto and his daughter. The court life of indulgence is in strong contrast to Rigoletto's shabby home and Sparafucile’s squalid inn.

Separate Musical Worlds

Verdi illustrates the very different worlds of Duke and jester in the characters’ musical styles. The Duke’s music is lyrical, based largely around arias and duets that alter in style depending on whom he is seducing, from the elegant ‘Questa o quella’ in Act I to the catchy ‘La donna è mobile’ in Act III. Rigoletto sings largely in duet, arioso and recitative, shifting styles from stormy to tender. Meanwhile Gilda, Rigoletto's daughter, sings high-lying, delicate lines that poignantly depict her innocence and corruption.

A Provocative Subject

Rigoletto is based on the controversial play Le Roi s’amuse by Victor Hugo. The play describes the amorous intrigues of François I of France, and the thwarted attempt by his jester Triboulet to destroy him. The premiere of Le Roi s’amuse caused such a scandal that the play was withdrawn from the Parisian stage for 50 years. Although Verdi toned down Hugo’s plot, his opera was still deemed scandalous by the Italian censors.

Genesis and Premiere

Verdi began work on his 17th opera Rigoletto in 1850. Francesco Maria Piave, his regular collaborator, was his librettist. Felice Varesi, the baritone who had created the title role in Verdi’s Macbeth, was chosen as Rigoletto. After considerable battles between Verdi and the censors, the opera had its premiere at La Fenice on 11 March 1851. Rigoletto became hugely popular, and in 1855 Verdi described it as his best opera. He was of course to write some ten after it!

Rigoletto runs 12 September–6 October 2014. Tickets are still available.
The performance on 17 September 2014 will be streamed live to free, outdoor venues around the UK as part of BP Big Screens. Find a screening near you.

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