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In this lesson, you’ll learn about Giuseppe Verdi’s dark, gritty opera ‘Rigoletto.

‘ You’ll learn about the themes and background of the story, and about the complex, tragic characters at its core.

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In the 19th Century, when Giuseppe Verdi wrote his opera Rigoletto, many operas resembled The Wizard of Oz, with very good ‘good guys,’ very bad ‘bad guys,’ and of course, lots of great melodies. However, Rigoletto is more like the 2003 musical Wicked, which reworked the Oz characters into more complicated people, neither fully evil nor fully good. Like Elphaba from Wicked, Rigoletto is a complex protagonist: he makes questionable moral choices, but we sympathize with him because of the suffering he endures.

Guiseppe Verdi and the Writing of Rigoletto

Portait of Giuseppe Verdi by Giovanni Boldini
Portait of Giuseppe Verdi by Giovanni Boldini

Guiseppe Verdi (1813-1891) was an Italian composer who specialized in operas. His works were incredibly popular in Italy during his lifetime – ordinary people loved and sang his melodies the way you or I might jam along to our favorite pop tunes in the car.

Many of the operas he wrote are still performed regularly worldwide.Verdi’s operas are known for their memorable tunes and the psychological complexity of their characters. Verdi loved to portray realistic people in dramatic situations and to explore a full range of human emotion. His operas are a great example of music from the Romantic Period (1815-1910), a time when European musicians loved to express passionate emotion and to use music to tell stories.Rigoletto premiered in Venice in 1851. It was based on a play called The King Amuses Himself by French novelist Victor Hugo (1802-1885).

If you know Hugo’s novels, like Les Mis;rables or The Hunchback of Notre Dame, you know that his stories carry social messages, often portraying powerful characters that oppress society’s outcasts, and this play was no exception.Hugo’s play was controversial because it contained a negative depiction of royalty – it featured an exploitative king who seduces an innocent girl. When Verdi wanted to turn this play into an opera, censors demanded that the king in the original version be changed to a mere duke, in order to soften the story’s revolutionary message against monarchy.

Despite this change, Rigoletto still raises serious questions about social justice.

Synopsis of Rigoletto

World Premiere poster
Poster for the world premiere of Rigoletto

There are three main characters in Rigoletto.

The Duke of Mantua is the powerful local ruler, a handsome young man who uses his money and power to seduce women. Rigoletto is a hunchbacked jester who works as a cynical comedian for the Duke. Gilda (pronounced ‘JEEL-dah’) is Rigoletto’s innocent, sheltered teenage daughter, who longs to experience love.

Act One

The first act opens with a party at the court of the Duke of Mantua. When Rigoletto jokes at the expense of Count Monterone, whose daughter has been seduced by the Duke, Monterone calls down a curse upon Rigoletto. Later, we learn that despite Rigoletto’s best efforts to shield his daughter Gilda from the outside world, she has met and fallen in love with the lascivious Duke.

When the Duke’s henchmen kidnap Gilda from her home, Rigoletto is devastated.

Act 1 Scene 2 Stage Set for the World Premiere
Act 1, Scene 2 stage set by Giuseppe Bertoja for the world premiere of Rigoletto

Act Two

Act Two opens the next morning, with the Duke’s henchmen gleefully recounting their kidnapping. Rigoletto arrives at the Duke’s palace, desperate to discover what has happened to Gilda. When he finds her and learns that she has been with the Duke, Rigoletto becomes obsessed with vengeance.

Act Three

In Act Three, Rigoletto hires a hitman named Sparfucile to murder the Duke.

Sparfucile’s seductive sister Maddelena lures the Duke to an isolated inn. Maddelena feels drawn to the Duke, and asks Sparfucile to spare him; Sparfucile agrees to do so if anyone arrives to die in the Duke’s place. Gilda overhears this conversation. Still tragically in love with the Duke, she enters the inn and is killed. Rigoletto discovers that his plot has resulted in Gilda’s death, and Monterone’s curse is complete.

Rigoletto and Gilda, portrayed by Sherrill Milnes and Maddalena Bonifaccio
Milnes and Bonifaccio in Rigoletto

The Music of Rigoletto

Like all of Verdi’s operas, Rigoletto is written for vocal soloists, a chorus (who performs crowd scenes), and a large orchestra consisting of stringed instruments, wind instruments, brass, and percussion. Verdi uses these large musical forces to add considerable drama and emotion to Victor Hugo’s original plot.In opera, a solo vocal number is called an aria.

Two of Verdi’s most famous arias (and catchiest melodies) appear in Rigoletto. In Act One, Gilda sings ‘Caro nome’ (‘Beloved Name’), an aria in which the vocalist’s high, ethereal voice and the pulsing notes of flutes express the fluttering heartbeat of newfound love. In Act Two, the Duke sings a humorous, ironic aria, ‘La donna é mobile’ (‘Women are Fickle’).

Using a cheery waltz beat, lush strings, and sudden changes between loud and soft, this aria expresses the Duke’s energetic, risk-taking attitude toward life.Perhaps the most famous number in Rigoletto is the quartet ‘Bella figlia dell’amore’ (‘Fair daughter of love’). It occurs in Act Three, when Gilda sees her beloved Duke cheating on her with Maddelena.

In this astonishing number, Verdi created music in which four characters’ emotions are woven together simultaneously. Rigoletto’s deep voice expresses rage, the Duke’s sensual melody expresses lust, Maddelena chuckles cynically in her sultry low voice, and the heartbroken Gilda sings a melody that imitates sighing and weeping. Verdi brings these four characters’ experiences together to create a dramatic whole much greater than its parts.

Lesson Summary

Giuseppe Verdi‘s opera Rigoletto tells the dramatic story of an immoral nobleman, the Duke of Mantua, who seduces the innocent Gilda, and the tragic outcome that results when her father, Rigoletto, seeks vengeance. Featuring a sympathetic social outcast as its main character, Rigoletto was based on a play by Victor Hugo.

The opera’s depiction of complex, human emotions, as well as its dramatic storytelling, show leading traits of music’s Romantic Period, and it also includes some of Verdi’s most famous arias.

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