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Verdi's beloved fool

February 24, 2007

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    February 24, 2007
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    Opera Carolina News

Verdi's beloved fool

If Giuseppe Verdi had never written another note, the three operas he turned out starting in his late 30s would guarantee him opera lovers' devotion.

Beginning Thursday, Opera Carolina stages the first piece of Verdi's winning trifecta: "Rigoletto."

It grows from a play by his contemporary Victor Hugo: "The King Amuses Himself," which dramatizes the same affliction Hugo had explored in his novel "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." Verdi zeroed in on the play in 1850 and declared to a collaborator: "By God, that one can't go wrong." He did have one concern -- a little question of "if the police will allow it."

Here are a few glimpses of what ensued.

"A creation worthy of Shakespeare" -- Giuseppe Verdi

Verdi was enthralled by the central character of Hugo's play: the king of France's court jester, whose driving force is his bitterness about being hunchbacked. The jester encourages the king's vices -- womanizing being No. 1 -- and relishes mocking the courtiers. His only sign of humanity is that he has a daughter he adores. "To me," Verdi wrote, "there is something really fine in representing on stage this character (who is) outwardly so ugly and ridiculous, inwardly so impassioned and full of love."

"Repellent immorality" -- a Venetian censor

Officials in Venice, where the opera was slated to premiere, controlled what could go onstage. Verdi's proposal appalled them: Following the play, it showed the king of France engaged in nonstop womanizing. (The idea of a skirt-chasing national leader isn't so startling today, is it?) Verdi agreed to change the king to an unnamed duke and move him to a less prominent town. Censors also nixed his using the play's title. Verdi decided to name the opera after the jester, whom he dubbed Rigoletto.

"The role we always dreamed about" -- baritone Gordon Hawkins

Verdi made his complex title character a baritone. "It's the most beautiful music that a Verdi baritone can sing," said Gordon Hawkins, who plays Rigoletto here. Rigoletto's scenes with his daughter include some of the tenderest melodies Verdi ever wrote. No wonder that when Hawkins was studying voice, he and other aspiring baritones were eager to wrap their voices around the role. Since then, Hawkins has done about 100 performances. "To be able to sing this music," Hawkins said, "you really are fortunate."

"The Curse" -- one of Verdi's working titles

Verdi saw a second compelling ingredient in Hugo's story. After Rigoletto makes fun of a nobleman whose daughter has been seduced by the duke, the furious man puts a curse on him. "This curse strikes the jester in the most terrifying way," Verdi wrote. "This seems to me moral and great, stupendously great."

"Those notes are emotions" -- Hawkins

We can also see Rigoletto's misfortunes -- beginning with the duke's conquest of his daughter -- as the result of his obsession with shielding her from the world. Baritones playing Rigoletto have to embody not only his love for her, but the sharpness of his barbs at the courtiers and his rage for revenge on the duke. Verdi's music can convey all of that, Hawkins said. During rehearsals for some operas, Hawkins can socialize with colleagues, he commented. But for Rigoletto, "you become a hermit. Just the sheer energy of it -- you can't afford to waste anything."

"Woman is fickle" -- The duke, Act 4

The jaunty theme that accompanies those words -- in Italian, "La donna è mobile" -- is one of the best-known tunes in opera. Legend has it that during the rehearsals for the premiere, Verdi was so sure it would catch on that he kept it secret until the last moment, fearing it would leak out and become fodder for Venice's singing gondoliers before it debuted onstage. Probably fiction. But a review of the premiere reported that the opening-night audience left the theater humming it. Viewers liked more than that: "Rigoletto" was a box-office hit from the start.

"I adored and adore this art" -- Verdi

"Rigoletto" is one of a string of Verdi operas where the bond between father and child is crucial. In his own life, Verdi didn't get to savor that bond: Before he was 30, his wife, daughter and son all died within a two-year period. He never had more children. There's no proof that his operas were a substitute. But keep his own experiences in mind when reading these words: "When I am alone and wrestling with my notes," he wrote in his 50s, "then my heart pounds, tears stream from my eyes, and the emotions and pleasures are beyond description."

RIGOLETTO

Opera Carolina presents the drama by Giuseppe Verdi.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. next Sunday.

WHERE: Belk Theater, Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, 130 N. Tryon St.

TICKETS: $14-$90.

DETAILS: 704-372-1000; www.operacarolina.org.

STEVEN BROWN
sbrown@charlotteobserver.com