Cheat Sheet: Rigoletto
Everything you need to know about the opera many consider Verdi's masterpiece.
Giuseppe Verdi had a gift for taking a character marginalised by society and putting them centre stage, whether it be a hunchbacked jester in Rigoletto, an Ethiopian princess in Aida or a courtesan in La Traviata.
He wrote big, beautiful melodies that demanded technical brilliance from his singers but are also undeniably catchy.
The composer was born in a small village in Parma to a poor family. He became a music teacher and conductor before finding success as an opera composer. By the time he died in 1901, his fame was such that 200,000 people lined the streets at his funeral to pay their tribute.
A portrait of Giuseppe Verdi, painted by Giovanni Boldini in 1886.
The Duke of Mantua lives only for pleasure of the female kind. No man’s wife or daughter is out of his reach, and while the Duke seduces their women, Rigoletto mocks their misfortune. The men of the court plot vengeance, hatching a plan to abduct a beautiful woman they believe Rigoletto has hidden away.
The woman is Rigoletto’s daughter, who despite his best efforts to keep her hidden, has already caught the eye of the lustful Duke. He pays a visit to seduce the beautiful Gilda. Before he can complete his mission, Gilda is kidnapped by the mob of men, who take her to the Duke’s palace for his amusement. The distraught Rigoletto vows to take vengeance.
But Gilda loves the Duke, in spite of everything, and is prepared to go to any lengths to save him from her father’s wrath.
Love and vengeance meet in the darkness as the opera draws to its dramatic, devastating conclusion.
Who are the main characters?
The Duke of Mantua: a rich man who can, and does, take any woman he wants
Rigoletto: his hunchbacked court jester
Gilda: Rigoletto’s beautiful, cloistered daughter
'La donna è mobile'. Verdi knew he’d written a bona fide hit: he only gave the tenor the music a few days before the opening, and forbade him from even whistling it in public, lest one of his competitors steal it and pass it off as their own.
Where have I heard that before?
Something to listen out for
Each of their characters has their own 'theme' music: a rhythmic or harmonic pattern that signifies their entrance into the action. The Duke’s music is jaunty, charming and catchy and the beautiful Gilda has beautiful melodies. The assassin’s own orchestration is appropriately menacing.
In the last act, as a storm brews over Mantua, Verdi captures the change in weather perfectly in the orchestra: rumbling thunder from the low strings, lighting from the high wind instruments and thrashing winds from the quivering strings.
An historic poster advertising the premiere of Rigoletto at La Fenice in Venice. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
A prolific opera composer, Verdi was always on the lookout for a strong character to base his next work on, and when he read Victor Hugo’s play Le Roi s’Amuse, he was captivated. The story of a lascivious King and his hunchbacked jester was banned in France after just one performance, but it was in the jester Verdi saw “a creation worthy of Shakespeare”.
He knew it would be a battle to get through Austrian and Italian censors, so at the suggestion of one of the very censors he needed to satisfy, swapped the King for a Duke, the setting from France to Italy and toned down some of the action.
It went back and forth with the authorities for months before it opened, but when it did premiere at La Fenice in Venice in 1851, it was a triumph. The opera is now widely considered Verdi’s masterpiece.
- Victor Hugo was actually jealous of how Verdi was able to tell the story he wrote. After hearing the 'Bella figlia dell’ amore' quartet, he wrote: “If I could only make four characters in my plays speak at the same time, and have the audience grasp the words and the sentiments, I would obtain the very same effect.”
- Verdi wrote most of the score over a period of 40 days.
The composer: Verdi, the most famous and successful Italian opera composer of the 19th century.
The music: Thematic, catchy and atmospheric. Verdi gave each of his characters a kind of theme song.
The big hit: 'La donna è mobile', the tune that's scored a thousand pasta ads.
The setting: Verdi's opera is set in 16th century Mantua. Moshinsky here updates the action to the early 1960s, in a La Dolce Vita inspired underworld of dangerous glamour.
The history: Verdi lost a few battles with the censors over Rigoletto, but got to keep most of his plot by threatening to never write another opera for Venice.
A quirky fact to impress your date: Determined to keep the score a secret, Verdi forbade his tenor from even whistling his aria 'La donna è mobile' outside rehearsals, lest someone overhear its catchy melody.