9 September 2014 at 12.00pm | 3 Comments
Rigoletto's Gilda is one of Verdi’s youngest heroines, and his most innocent. He wrote the part for a lighter, higher voice than many of his soprano roles. Gilda is a 16-year-old ingénue, who until the start of the opera has spent most of her life secluded in a convent. She knows hardly anything about the world or her family – not even her father’s real name. So when Gilda falls in love, she expresses her feelings not with the passion of Leonora from Il trovatore or Violetta from La traviata, but in a gentle, dreamy aria that Verdi instructed to be sung at a moderate pace and sotto voce (very quietly).
By the time Gilda sings her first and only aria we have already learnt a lot about her from her Act I duets with Rigoletto and the Duke of Mantua (disguised as 'poor student' Gualtier Maldé). We have witnessed her childlike excitement at Rigoletto’s arrival, her tender response to his grief at the memory of her mother, and her mixture of restlessness (she longs to go out into the city) and docility (when Rigoletto forbids it, she does not protest). We have realized her extreme innocence, almost naivety, in her dialogue with the conniving Giovanna, when she expresses her hope that the handsome stranger she’s seen at church is poor like her, as it will make their love more romantic. And we have seen her shyly mesmerized by the Duke’s eloquent declarations of love, to the point where her vocal line can only imitate his. Indeed, much of Gilda’s music in both Act I duets is imitative or acts as a descant to Rigoletto or the Duke’s vocal line.
‘Caro nome’ is Gilda’s first extended expression of independent emotions, and shows both her tenderness and her simplicity. The aria is preceded by a shimmering figuration described by Verdi scholar Julian Budden as an example of Verdi’s finest woodwind writing. Over it, Gilda slowly and rapturously pronounces the name of her lover, ‘Gualtier Maldé’. ‘Caro nome’ then opens with a gentle flute melody, as simple as a folksong. Gilda takes up the melody, echoed by a cicada-like buzzing on solo violin, as she meditates on the ‘beloved name’ that has taught her to love. The gentle pace, falling phrases and the stresses on words such as ‘desir’ (desire) and ‘sospir’ (sigh) suggest Gilda sighing with pleasure at her new emotions, while the solo violin conveys Gilda’s excitedly beating heart.
The aria develops in a way that is both novel and very simple. After bar 24 there is essentially no new musical material. Instead, the aria becomes a series of continuous variations on the opening melody, as though Gilda is weaving ever more elaborate romantic fantasies around the name of her lover. Nor is there any new text – instead, Gilda repeats her earlier words, in fragments. The increasingly elaborate melody and passages of ecstatic coloratura suggest her growing excitement at the discovery of love. Towards the end, the slowing pace and tender, expansive phrases show her delight – she doesn’t want to stop thinking about 'Gualtier’. Throughout, the orchestral textures remain delicate, reflecting Gilda’s gentleness. The aria culminates in a rapturous, wordless cadenza, and then blends seamlessly into the following scene, as Gilda continues to repeat rapturously the name of her lover as courtiers approach.
‘Caro nome’ is a breathtaking portrayal of young love in all its innocence and idealism. It marks the first step in Gilda’s transformation from ingénue to self-sacrificing heroine. The Gilda we encounter in Act II, with her long solo ‘Tutte le feste al tempio’, is a very different woman, both in terms of her emotions and her music. The fact that in ‘Caro nome’ we already know her love for the Duke is doomed makes its tenderness and sincerity all the more poignant.