The Experimental Nature Of Verdi's Opera Rigoletto (1851)
Date : 30/12/2014
Verdi was commissioned to write a new opera by the Venice opera house, La Fenice, in 1850. He chose the play Le roi s`amuse by Victor Hugo as his subject; this became Rigoletto with an Italian libretto written by Francesco Maria Piave. It was first performed at La Fenice in Venice on 11 March 1851. Verdi first wrote to Piave about his new idea for an opera; in which he calls Hugo's play one of the 'greatest creations' of theatre. Verdi was also interested deeply in Shakespeare and found the part of Triboulet worthy of the playwright; one of the reasons he was drawn to the subject. He had been surprised that censors had allowed his previous opera Ernani to be put on, but was therefore confident that they may well pass his new idea of Hugo's play. Verdi had his own ideas about the way to adapt the story for the stage and Piave was told to keep closely as possible to the original, even down to the use of the sack. The libretto, on Verdi's orders, follows Hugo very well and Piave's translation from the French is mostly direct, including Rigoletto's most significant and magnificent soliloquy in Act I, 'Pari Siamo!', with its Shakespearian stature that Verdi was such a fan of. The play however had not been well received by the aristocracy in France and Germany when it was premiered there, but Piave assured Verdi that the Austrian censors would not object to the subject. Verdi foreseeing that some concessions would have to be made told Piave that he could change the scene with the key, which puts the Duke in a very bad light. Of course, for the censors, there were problems with the subject matter. The Military Governor of Venetia forbid the subject to be put on, with or without amendments. Verdi reacted to this by completely blaming Piave, it had been his business after all to get the subject passed. The main objections were this: showing a reigning monarch as debauched and conscienceless, offending religion by way of showing the working out of a curse, along with the fact that the plot included obscenities and immoral actions. One other objection from the censors was having a hunchback on stage, something to which Verdi took offense at. He saw Rigoletto as a character opposed completely to the handsome but immoral Duke. Rigoletto was supposed to convey an outwardly ridiculous and deformed persona but that was also inwardly filled with passion and love. Piave then refashioned the libretto in Duc de Vendome, though Verdi found this completely unacceptable; for him it lacked character and meaning, and in which the dramatic points would have been left nullified. The libretto now made no sense especially the threat of the curse; the Duke's character also had to be changed and the use of the sack forbidden. Finally an agreement was reached and Verdi, Piave and Brenna, the Secretary of the Fenice Theatre, drew up a document. This outlined five points that had been agreed upon. The place and names of the characters from Hugo's play were to be changed. The Key scene was done away with, this put the Duke in a slightly better light, though not much. Importantly for the drama the sack scene was agreed to be left unchanged. Rigoletto is an example of a new form of character development in opera that emerges in librettos in the 1850s. Pfister terms this the 'dynamically conceived figure' who undergoes `a process of development in the course of the text` as opposed to `statically conceived figures' that remain constant throughout the whole of the text. In Verdi`s lyric numbers, characters not only develop detailed agendas for future actions but also implement them. By adapting a new comic opera tradition, Verdi, in Rigoletto, is able to achieve a unique characterisation in both Gilda and Duke, especially and most significantly the latter; 'an epitome of heartless, elegant charm, noble only in frustration'. It is unorthodox, though no completely original, to have a tenor anti-hero, though without a doubt It is surely one of the most interesting and most challenging roles to accept for an audience of its time. Verdi begins with Rigoletto what he finally calls, during the Otello and Falstaff years, `Dramma`. According to this, text, music, vocal display and stage picture were to be kept in a relative balance, and all four 'subordinate to the higher aim of creating Dramma'. Dramma was supposed to be continuous compelling engagement for the spectator with the portrayed events on stage becoming something more than their individual elements; aria, duet or ensemble. Like his predecessors Verdi used an elaborate system of formal construction, 'solite forme', for organising arias, duets and finales, though In Rigoletto there is a lack of subservience to these formal patterns used by Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini. Verdi aimed to weaken the clear boundaries between the sections; making static lyric numbers more active and active scena more lyrical. This allowed for more flexibility in expression and stronger characterisation in both sections. Verdi also varied the internal designs of the standard forms; omitting movements and interpolating additional sections. The elements in themselves in the opera are relatively traditional, but they are fused in a new and exciting way. Old forms are dissolved within a wider perspective; Rigoletto is unique in Verdi's work for not containing any concerted act finales. The husband of the singer playing Gilda wrote to Verdi to ask if he could compose another aria for her to sing. Verdi reacted to this saying that was not needed dramatically so would not happen. He conceived the opera 'almost without arias, without finales but only an unending string of duets'. In Rigoletto, Verdi uses the scene as his working unit rather than the aria. Arias, duets and recits still makeup a scene, instead now it is the scene's structure that determines the way the arias, duets and recits are used. The banda towards the beginning of the first act is used interestingly for deeper meaning than to set a festival mood. It depicts the corruption and triviality of the Duke's court. 'Verdi has achieved a deliberately jarring effect - the sombre menace of the prelude dissipated in a guffaw'. The Duke's aria 'Questa o quella', which follows, is 'pure comic opera'; the simple strophic form with 6/8 'jigging' accompaniment is as remote from the usual cavatina as could be imagined. This simple tune, similar in style to his later aria 'La donna e mobile', represents the care free nature of the Duke. Verdi is concerned with characterisation and not with musical form so much. The aria emerges easily from the preceding section, showing how Verdi is beginning to merge the borders between his musical numbers. The first act is interesting in that the story unfolds in a very unusual way; a series of apparently disconnected events which take on significance only in retrospect. The short opening scene of about fifteen minutes contains much information about the plot and most of the main characters. Operas in more traditional forms would in this time only have had an overture, an opening chorus and a hero/heroine aria. The drama otherwise is considerably advanced in Verdi's form. An empty bar and a half at the final cadence in the Duke's duet after his aria allows for Rigolletto to enter for the first time with a typical jibe 'What thoughts are running through your head, Signor di Ceprano'. It is a curiously unemphatic entrance for the title role and lead character. Rigoletto is supposed to look like the orchestrator and stage manager of the situation; not taking a lead role, but intervening, helping the action along. Rigoletto's reply to Monterone in Act I is another interesting section of the score; it is that of a parody of regal pomp. This is one of the most worked out passages in the score, a section that expresses not just buffoonery but also evil; hence the use of orchestral unision. After each phrase there are explosions of laughter represented in the score by rapid gruppetti on violins and woodwind. There is a metaphoric 'dignitiy slipping on a banana skin' that is represented by the measured opening 'voi congriuraste' that dissolves into free semiquavers. The curse from Monteronne follows; his outburst on a high F as the orchestra ascending with forte semiquavers, an affect Budden describes as something only Verdi would risk. Rigoletto's next encounter is with the assassin 'who lurks in the dark unfolds beyond the boundaries of normal operatic discourse, in a zone of chilling freedom from social restraint'. Marcello Conati describes the Rigoletto-Sparafucile duet as an adaption of French melodrama. The musical texture is all in the orchestra, whereas the voices are restricted to pure dialogue, never singing together. `It is not impossible that Verdi`s visit to the Parisian theatres inspired the extreme originality of this passage`. Though innovative, the duet has an ancestor in the duet 'Qui che fai?' from Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia. Both pieces derive from the opera buffa procedure of having two comic basses parlanti against an orchestra melody. The duet is coloured with the low voices, clarinet, bassoon and lower strings, to match the two singers. Verdi's orchestration here is masterful, giving the instruments the 'gloomily sinister melody' while the two voices converse freely over it. 'Pari siamo' is an example of Verdi's 'extraordinary ability to harness his psychological insight to his melodic genius'. The section is not an aria, but part recit and part arioso. It contains no tunes but according to Osborne is memorable 'phrase after phrase'. The piece changes pace to match the stress of spoken dialogue. The father-daughter duet between Rigoletto and Gilda exemplifies Verdi's innovative writing while still adhering to the conventional form somewhat. It includes all the four movements of a grand duet, though the slow movement lacks a traditional coda and consists of imbalances contrasting solos of different moods. Verdi also chooses to have a cabaletta of moderate tempo instead of a faster pace which avoids 'inappropriate levity'. This final section is interrupted by noises from outside that Rigoletto overhears; the duet then transitions into the unfolding action. Rigoletto's entrance in Act II is intriguing as Piave's stage direction tells him to hum a tune with 'an affected nonchalance'. The more controlled Rigoletto appears at this point the more impressive will be his later outburst. The page arrives next with news that makes Rigoletto realise that the Duke is with his daughter. Verdi's working of the next sequence is much more subtle than more traditional operatic schemes would normally allow. The dotted rhythm from the previous movement continues but twice as fast and the change to allegro is reserved for Rigoletto's words 'All ella e qui dunque', while his exclamation of 'io vo' is accompanied with a 'violent tonal wrench' from F major to E flat. The drama is driven by the changes in the music of rhythmic texture, movement and tonality. Finally Rigoletto's fury is discharged not by a cabaletta but in a slow movement, to drive home the despair of the character. The 'glorious, purely vocal climax' of 'Ridate a me la figlia' is shows Verdi's clear understanding of the Baritone voice and the limits of its expressive powers, something Rossini would never have tried to achieve. It is just after this that Gilda comes rushing in. Dramatically one must remember that Gilda discovers her father's shame as he discovers hers, this double emotional hit to the audience adds to the intensity of the scene as the tension builds. Gilda recounts her story, and as with Rigoletto's aria, sliding to flatter keys, the tonal scheme represents the relative stages of Gilda's emotional state. The Duke's 'La donna e mobile', at the beginning of Act III, is not just a representation of his shallow gaiety and virile swagger, but also his ruthlessness. Especially present in the way the first orchestral statement is bitten off after seven bars, a parody on one of Italian opera's most 'primitive mannerisms'. Its catchiness, so essential to the drama, has in past given the opera a bad name; 'To the uninformed 'La donna e mobile' is Rigoletto'. The quartet 'Bella figlia dell' amore', which follows soon after, marks a 'new stage in the evolution of ensemble-writing'. Verdi's real achievement in this quartet was to apply the differentiating technique vertically though within a regular more classical design. Each character is able, through Verdi's music, to express their own emotional situation at that time. The opera now departs from all previous operatic forms. What follows has been described by Budden as a 'scene a faire' against the background of the storm. offstage wordless chorus, humming which represents the wind, adds to the haunting nature of the section. The storm finishes with Sparafucile's final decision to instead kill the first traveller who comes through the door, of course Gilda overhears this, dressed as a man. As Gilda enters and is stabbed by Sparafucile the most violent orchestra outburst is heared, for which the stage directions also call for a thunder machine to be used. There is no need for such a machine since the music is so powerful. A bell announces midnight, the time for Rigoletto to return. The bell contributes its 'archaic power' to the mystery and terror of the scene. When Rigoletto reappears he savours the moment with the body in the bag, not knowing yet it is in fact his daughter. His monologue reaches its climax with a splendid phrase of sombre gloating. One of the most dramatically effective twists of fate happens next just as Rigoletto is about to throw the sack into the river, he hears the Duke's 'La donna e mobile'. The cynical indifference of the tune adds extra poignancy to the tragedy as Rigoletto realises the actuality of the situation. Verdi's last few bars for the dying Gilda are particularly interesting. They contain a dramatic slip that Budden describes as being 'worthy of the Requiem', slipping by a semitone for her last two phrases 'Lassu in ciel'. She dies as Rigoletto breaks out with a cry of 'La Maledizione!'. Verdi pushes operatic structural forms to new levels in Rigoletto. His masterful orchestration drives home the motifs of passion, love and hate as the drama slides from one duet to the next until it reaches its pinnacle as the curse is realised for Rigoletto, a truly sophisticated and layered character innovative in its time for the operatic stage.
This resource was uploaded by: Guy
Other articles by this author
- Principal musical characteristics of Benjamin Britten's Opera Billy Budd
- The genesis, historical context and the various versions of Messiah during Handel's lifetime.