All you need to know about Verdi’s heartbreaking drama – right here…
What is the story?
The opera is set in the world of the Duke of Mantua – a morally corrupt, womanising ruler. We begin at the Duke’s party, during which he mentions having his eye on a mystery beauty. His jester Rigoletto – who is despised for being different – mocks all the guests, including a statesman, Monterone, who is furious that his daughter has been molested by the Duke. In retaliation, Monterone places a curse on Rigoletto.
Back at Rigoletto’s safehouse, we meet his beloved daughter Gilda, whom he fiercely protects. Even so, she has managed to fall in love with a mystery man she has seen (who turns out, of course, to be the Duke). Later that night, Gilda is abducted and delivered, much to the Duke’s delight, to his bedroom!
On discovering that the Duke has got his hands on Gilda, Rigoletto is distraught, and approaches the assassin Sparafucile to help him wreak his revenge. However, the plan goes terribly wrong, and we see Monterone’s curse come to pass in a devastating way…
Who are the main characters?
The Duke – ruler of Mantua (tenor)
Rigoletto [ri-go-LE-tto] – the Duke’s jester (baritone)
Gilda [JIL-da] – his daughter (soprano)
Monterone [mon-te-RO-ne] – an elder statesman (bass)
Sparafucile [spa-ra-fu-CHI-le] – the Duke’s Head of Security (bass)
Maddalena [madd-a-LE-na] – his sister (mezzo-soprano)
There is also a full Chorus who play guests, abductors, and many other characters. And in this staging, we get to meet figures that exist within the story but are never usually seen, such as the Duke’s wife!
Alyona Abramova as Maddalena © Clive Barda
What is this production like?
This new production (Opera North’s first Rigoletto in 15 years!) is directed by British-Nigerian theatre artist Femi Elufowoju jr, and depicts the society he was born into, and continues to live in, as a Black man.
Rather than having a physical disability, Rigoletto’s impairment is mental – he is plagued by the paranoia of a Black man in a predominantly white world, and his mind is constantly working against him. In this context, Monterone’s curse is even more significant:
“I want this moment to resonate for the characters who, because of their ethnicity, are familiar with the ‘curse phenomenon’. Rigoletto, Gilda, Monterone, Marullo and the Countess Ceprano, will be sung by people of colour. These characters are aware of the power and impact of the curse, and their response is infectious.”
There are a host of contemporary cultural references – a reflection of our own lives – from a painting of Gilda inspired by the work of Nigerian-American painter Kehinde Wiley, to nods to various Netflix shows! Homage is also paid to iconic African symbols of peace in Gilda’s safehouse.
Sir Willard White as Monterone © Clive Barda
What is the music like?
While Verdi cleverly wrote some of his most charming music for the Duke, Gilda’s music is sublimely beautiful. Her aria ‘Caro nome’, a musing on the name of the man she has fallen in love with, is technically virtuosic and very exposed, but the melody floats and dances. And the syllables of the opening phrase are broken up by rests, as if Gilda is reeling and trying to catch her breath.
Overall in Rigoletto, however, Verdi moves away from the traditional stop-start structure of Italian opera into more free-flowing, continuous drama. The melody is not always in the vocal line, but in the orchestra, and he uses certain instruments and musical figures for different characters and ideas. The purity of the flute is associated with Gilda, and there is a theme for the curse which first appears in the dark prelude – it’s all on one repeated note, suggesting its obsessional hold on Rigoletto…
Who was the composer?
Rigoletto was written by one of the best-loved operatic composers in history – Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901). Born in Italy, Verdi composed 26 different operas during his lifetime, some of the most popular being La traviata, Aida and Nabucco.
Verdi always looked for strong subjects featuring relatable, human characters. He had a knack for taking figures marginalised by society and telling their stories – putting them centre stage.
Giuseppe Verdi © Giovanni Boldini (1886)
A little history
In 1850, Verdi was commissioned to write a brand-new opera for La Fenice in Venice. For a plot, he had set his heart on using Victor Hugo’s controversial 1832 French play Le roi s’amuse (The King Amuses Himself), which had been shut down due to its portrayal of a debauched monarch. However, Verdi believed the subject could be “one of the greatest creations of the modern theatre”, so told librettist Francesco Marie Piave to go to whatever lengths necessary to get approval from the censors.
Permission was, predictably, denied. The censors thought the topic one of “repulsive immorality” and specified that the ruler needed to be an “irreproachable character”! However, Verdi insisted that “the Duke MUST be a libertine”, otherwise the drama made no sense. In the end, a compromise was found. By simply moving the action to the Dukedom of Mantua in Northern Italy c.1600 under the long-extinct Gonzaga family, and re-naming some characters, the opera was deemed less threatening.
It was now full steam ahead on the newly named Rigoletto – in fact, Verdi was still orchestrating as the cast were rehearsing! The opera premiered in March 1851 and was a huge box office success. Today, it is still among the top ten most frequently performed operas worldwide.
La Fenice's poster for the premiere of Rigoletto, March 1851
Did you know…
— With ‘La donna è mobile’, Verdi knew he’d written something so catchy that it was rehearsed in secret and the cast were forbidden to sing or even whistle the tune outside the theatre before the premiere! He was right – the aria was sung in the streets the next morning, and still appears in TV ads nowadays (including this one for Doritos). And in 2020, a version sung by tenor Maurizio Marchini from his balcony during coronavirus lockdown in Florence went viral on social media.
— The name of the opera’s main character was originally Triboulet (Francis I’s actual jester) as per Victor Hugo’s play, but to appease the censors was renamed Rigoletto from the French word rigoler, which means ‘to laugh’.
— Verdi was a huge Shakespeare fan and wrote various operas based on his plays. He wanted to compose a King Lear and never did, but Rigoletto is the closest we get – it’s full of Shakespearean resonances and irony, juxtaposing moments of humour with bleak tragedy.