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Opera was the popular art form of the time. As a result, it proved to be an effective means of bringing people together in the revolution. Giuseppe Verdi, one of the most popular composers of the 19th century, was an important voice of the Risorgimento. His mid-career masterpiece, Rigoletto (1851), with its unflattering portrayal of a ruler, contained particularly subversive themes. The opera has remained popular because of its powerful synthesis of heart-wrenching personal struggle and soaring, dramatic music.
In addition to Rigoletto, many of Verdi's other operas voice Risorgimento themes: the fight against tyrannical rulers, the development of an Italian national identity, and the cultivation of a social unity. In fact, the chorus "Va, pensiero" from Verdi's opera Nabucco became an anthem for the revolutionaries, sweeping through the peninsula and offering the Italian people a nostalgic look at the past glories of their land and a glimpse of its nascent future.
Verdi's Rigoletto was inspired by Victor Hugo's play Le roi s'amuse, a particularly political dissident and dramatic piece. Hugo's work portrayed the frivolity and love affairs of the king, a direct parallel to King Louis-Phillipe, the ruler of France at the time of the 1832 premiere of Le roi s'amuse. As a result, the play was banned in Paris the day after its opening.
Like Hugo, Verdi also faced censorship. In his case, it came from many factions: the French, the Austrians, the Italians and the Pope. Opera was a prime target for censors because it drew large audiences and held a prominent place in society. The censors were displeased with Rigoletto on many accounts. The story depicted attempted regicide, rape, adultery, disrespect for religion, and criticism of royalty—all of which were considered shocking subject matters.
Verdi was permitted to continue work on the opera only because of his international reputation and the prominence of La Fenice, the world-renowned Venetian opera house that had commissioned Rigoletto. However, to appease the censors, Verdi was forced to change the character of the King to a Duke, and to alter the entire setting of the opera, the title and many characters' names. Even with these changes, Verdi managed to keep his portrayal of a foolish ruler ignobly abusing his power and influence.
Despite its challenging beginning, Rigoletto became a great success. The opera continues to be appreciated the world over, and has become an essential member of the operatic repertoire. Its long-lasting popularity is due in large part to its powerful melodies and dramatic orchestration. At its heart, Rigoletto offers a moving and complex story, juxtaposing good and evil; purity and promiscuity; pride and humility; and complacency and action.
On his way home that night, Rigoletto broods on Monterone's curse. Rejecting the services offered by Sparafucile, a professional assassin, he notes that the word can be as deadly as a dagger. Greeted by his daughter, Gilda, whom he keeps hidden from the world, he reminisces about his late wife then warns the governess, Giovanna, to admit no one. As Rigoletto leaves, the Duke slips into the garden, tossing a purse to Giovanna to keep her quiet. The nobleman declares his love to Gilda, who has noticed him in church. He tells her he is a poor student named Gualtier MaldÃ¨, but at the sound of footsteps he rushes away. Tenderly repeating his name, Gilda goes to her bedchamber. Meanwhile, the courtiers stop Rigoletto in the alley by his house. They tell him they are going to abduct Ceprano's wife, and convince him to help them. The jester is duped into wearing a blindfold. Holding a ladder against his own garden wall, the courtiers break into his house and carry off Gilda. Hearing his daughter's cry for help, Rigoletto tears off his blindfold and rushes into the house, discovering only her scarf. He remembers Monterone's curse.
ACT II. In his palace, the Duke is distraught over the disappearance of Gilda. When his courtiers return, saying it is they who have taken her and that she is now in his bedchamber, he joyfully rushes off to the conquest. Rigoletto enters warily looking for Gilda. The courtiers at first taunt him, and prevent him from seeing the Duke. They are astonished to learn the girl is not his mistress but his daughter. Gilda runs from the Duke's bedchamber and tells her father of her courtship and abduction. As Monterone is led to the dungeon, Rigoletto vows to avenge them both.
ACT III. At night, outside Sparafucile's run-down inn on the outskirts of town, Sparafucile tells his sister, and accomplice, Maddalena that they are to be paid for the dead body of her next customer who, unknown to her, is the Duke. Outside the tavern, Gilda and Rigoletto watch their victim arrive, and make his advances on Maddalena. Rigoletto sends his daughter off to disguise herself as a boy for her escape to Verona. He pays Sparafucile to murder the Duke. As a storm rages, Maddalena sends her new admirer to the bedroom. She argues with her brother about murdering him, for she likes him too much. Sparafucile aggress to kill their next visitor and to substitute that body for the Duke's. Gilda has returned, disguised as a boy, and overhears them. Resolving to sacrifice herself for the Duke, despite his betrayal, she enters the inn and is stabbed. Rigoletto comes back to claim the body and gloats over the sack Sparafucile gives him, only to hear his supposed victim singing in the distance. Frantically cutting open the sack he discovers his dying daughter -- Monterone's curse is fulfilled.
Sherrill Milnes, Luciano Pavarotti, Joan Sutherland.
London Symphony Orchestra, cond. Richard Bonynge. London/Decca (2 discs).
The best all-around choice is this 1972 classic set featuring three of the greatest singers of the 20th century, all in their resplendent vocal primes. Milnes is a heroic Rigoletto, dramatically gripping and vocally thrilling (with some high notes even a tenor could envy). Pavarotti's Duke showcases the tenor in his golden-voiced, stylish glory. Trademark mushy diction aside, Sutherland's soaring Gilda is gorgeously sung. Even Bonynge (Sutherland's husband), often a rather bland presence on the podium, conducts with fire that perfectly completes the visceral thrill of this performance. A bit of trivia: the small role of Countess Ceprano is sung by a young (pre-stardom) Kiri Te Kanawa. Highly recommended – a "highlights" version is also available.
For the full list of recommended recordings visit Chad's Choice.
The great Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi was born in La Roncole on October 10, 1813. Displaying considerable talent from a very early age, he was assistant organist at the small local church by the time he was ten. In 1829, at the age of 13, he was an assistant conductor of the Busseto orchestra and an organist at the town church. In 1836, Verdi married Margherita Barezzi, the daughter of his greatest benefactor. His first successful opera, Oberto, opened at La Scala in 1839. However, his next opera, the comedy Un Giorno di Regno (King for a Day), was a complete failure. To add tragedy to insult, Verdi lost his wife and two young children to illness within the same year, and the despondent composer resolved to give up music altogether. Fortunately, the manager of La Scala persuaded him to persevere and write his next opera – Nabucco, which premiered in 1842 to great acclaim and securing Verdi's reputation as a major figure in the music world.
Between 1844 and 1850 Verdi composed at a tremendous rate, demonstrating a maturing style and more flowing musical line, as evidenced in Ernani (1844), Macbeth (1847), and Luisa Miller (1849). During his "middle period" Verdi wrote three of his most succesful operas: Rigoletto (1851), Il Trovatore (1853), and La Traviata (1853). These were followed by I vespri siciliani (The Sicilian Vespers, 1855), Simon Boccanegra (1857), Un ballo in maschera (A Masked Ball, 1859), La Forza del Destino (The Force of Destiny, 1862) and Don Carlos (1867). After Aïda (1871), which commemorated the opening of the Suez Canal in Egypt, Verdi retired to his estate at Sant'Agata, where he wrote the great Requiem Mass. Verdi was drawn back to the opera by his publisher, Giulio Ricordi, who introduced him to the celebrated poet and composer Arrigo Boito. They worked together on what would be Verdi's final triumphs, both based on works by Shakespeare: Otello (1886) Falstaff (1893), the only other comedy he had written since the disastrous Un Giorno di Regno and considered Verdi's humanistic masterpiece.
Upon his death in 1901, there were scenes of national mourning for the man who was both a great musician, philanthropist and patriot to all of Italy. At the funeral, the 28,000 people who lined the streets of Milan broke out softly but spontaneously into "Va pensiero," the great chorus of the Hebrew slaves from Nabucco – a song which had become Italy's unofficial national anthem. Verdi was buried with his second wife Giuseppina Strepponi at the Casa di Riposo, a retirement home for elderly musicians that was establshed by Verdi himself.
No Language Barrier!
Enjoy the beauty of the original language and understand it all with English translations. The English text is projected on a screen above the stage for each opera. Easy to follow, and easy to understand every twist and turn of the plot!