Major Operas | Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi | High Romantic

Verdi’s three-act opera Rigoletto, based on Victor Hugo’s play Le roi s’amuse (‘The King Amuses Himself’, 1832), was originally entitled La maledizione (‘The Malediction’) – a reference to the curse placed on the superstitious court jester Rigoletto, which fulfills itself in the final scene.

The first performance of Rigoletto took place at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice on 11 March 1851. The London premiere followed on 14 May 1853 and the first performance in New York on 19 February 1855.

Rigoletto is a superb example of the integrated opera in which action, music and characterization combined to create dramatic unison. This, even though the opera’s five most famous numbers, including the great quartet from the last act, are often detached and performed separately. Rigoletto is also an unconventional opera, based on what Verdi called a ‘series of duets’. He also used a reminiscence motif, repeating the chilling, doom-laden phrase introduced in the prelude to the opera to represent the jester’s terror at the curse laid on him. The motif made its own subtle contribution to the famous aria ‘La donna è mobile’, which tells Rigoletto that his planned murder of the licentious Duke of Mantua has failed.

Composed: 1850–51
Premiered: 1851, Venice
Libretto by Francesco Maria Piave, after Victor Hugo

Act I

In the court of Mantua, the duke tells the courtiers of his success with women. Rigoletto, the duke’s jester, taunts Count Ceprano about the duke’s interest in his wife. The count plots revenge on Rigoletto with some other courtiers; the jester is believed to keep a mistress at his house and they plan to abduct her. A nobleman, Monterone, enters, intending to denounce the duke for seducing his daughter. Rigoletto mocks him and Monterone is arrested; as he is led away, he curses the horrified jester. The curse worries Rigoletto as he returns home. He is approached by the assassin, Sparafucile, who offers his services, but Rigoletto refuses and muses on how words can be as harmful as a dagger. He is welcomed home by his daughter, Gilda, whom he keeps hidden from the world and, more importantly, the philandering duke. Rigoletto laments the death of his wife and, fearing for Gilda’s safety, orders her nurse Giovanna to prevent anyone from entering the garden.

As Rigoletto leaves, the duke, having bribed Giovanna, enters the garden. He introduces himself to Gilda as Gualtier Maldè, an impoverished student, and declares his love for her. She has seen him in church and, after he leaves at the sound of approaching footsteps, dreamily muses over his (false) name.

Ceprano and the courtiers stop Rigoletto and enlist his help in abducting Ceprano’s wife. They blindfold him and, confusing him, trick him into putting a ladder up against his own wall. The courtiers then abduct Gilda and make off with her. Hearing her cries for help, Rigoletto removes his blindfold and sees that everyone has vanished. Finding Gilda’s scarf, he laments Monterone’s curse.

Act II

The duke is concerned...

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