Rigoletto: A Listening Guide
Get to know the music of Verdi's Rigoletto. Warning: contains spoilers.
The prelude is everything that Rigoletto will be: dark, moody, tragic. A solo trumpet plays a repeated C and the brass give us a clanging chord, foreshadowing the curse. We’ll hear the curse chord over and over again throughout the opera, as Monterone’s curse haunts Rigoletto.
But the very next thing the audience hears is party music: brash dance music that instantly paints a picture of the libidinous Duke’s court. It’s deliberately incongruous. In the Duke’s court where the pursuit of pleasure is paramount, there are darker forces at play.
Gilda (Rigoletto's beautiful, cloistered daughter)
In this aria, we meet a Gilda who has fallen in love. The music is gorgeous, reflecting her innocence and beauty, but it also lets us get inside her head. She’s a teenage girl who’s found love at first sight: trills and busy ornaments show off her nervous excitement. The melodic line moves down in steps, almost sighing as she longs for the handsome man she’s seen at church.
Gualtier Maldè; name of the man I love,
be thou engraved upon my lovesick heart!
Beloved name, the first to move
the pulse of love within my heart,
thou shalt remind me ever
of the delights of love!
In my thoughts, my desire
will ever fly to thee,
and my last breath of life
shall be, beloved name, of thee.
The Duke of Mantua
Like his ‘Questa o quella’ in Act 1, this bright aria gives away the Duke’s character in its feel. The duke is vain, shallow and charming, and Verdi gives him arias that are unashamedly tuneful, brash, jaunty and impossible to get out of your head.
Women are as fickle
as feathers in the wind,
simple in speech,
and simple in mind.
always the loveable,
sweet, laughing face,
but laughing or crying,
the face is false for sure.
Women are as fickle, etc.
If you rely on her
you will regret it,
and if you trust her
you are undone!
Yet none can call himself
Compare this to Rigoletto’s music.
The jester is grotesque, complex and unusual. His music lies somewhere between a Shakespearean soliloquy and a recitative. Musical phrases are short and changeable, stopping and starting and impossible to catch hold of. They lack traditional tunes.
We are two of a kind: my weapon is my tongue,
his is a dagger;
I am a man of laughter,
he strikes the fatal blow!
The old man cursed me…
O mankind! O nature! It was you who made me evil and corrupt!
I rage at my monstrous form, my cap and bells!
To be permitted nothing but to laugh!
I’m denied that common human right, to weep.
First fury, then despair, then supplication: the music of this wonderful aria traces Rigoletto’s emotional spectrum as he learns of his daughter’s kidnapping. He’s angry, he’s sad, he’s powerless, he’s begging. Repetitive notes in the strings show us Rigoeltto’s distress.
The strings give us a tumbling melodic line against Rigoletto’s powerful syncopated notes — his anger is burning. As the strings build tension repeating a single note, Rigoletto’s sings slowly, despairing as he realises the courtiers stand against him, gathering speed and power as he begs Marullo to take pity on him. With a dramatic top note, Rigoletto changes key from minor to major as he moves throught his torment and makes an eloquent plea for his daughter’s release.
Courtiers, vile, damnable rabble,
how much were you paid for my treasure?
There’s nothing you won’t do for money,
but my daughter is beyond any price.
Give her back…or this hand, though unarmed,
will prove a dread weapon indeed
Ah! You’re all against me!
All against me!
My lords, forgive me, have pity!
Give an old man back his daughter!
To give her back can cost you nothing now,
but to me my daughter is everything.
In this moment, we really see the power of opera to tell a story in a way that theatre can’t. With four separate melody lines, Verdi allows us to see into the heads of four very different characters at once.
Victor Hugo, who wrote the play which inspired Rigoletto, was astonished at its effectiveness.
“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,” he wrote, after seeing the opera.
The Duke is seducing Maddalena, and his melodies rise, and rise, as he grows impatient for his conquest. Maddalena, whose loyalties and virtue are literally, all over the place, sings a melodic line that jump around. Gilda’s belief in the duke’s love for her is dashed before her eyes, and she sings a line that slumps with disappointment, descending in pitch. Rigoletto is unmoved by her pain – his music is measured and steady.
DUKE: Fairest daughter of love,
I am a slave to your charms…
MADDALENA: Ah! Ah! That really makes me laugh
talk like that is cheap enough
GILDA: O wretched heart betrayed
Do not break for sorrow
RIGOLETTO: You are now convinced he was lying,
Hush, and leave it up to me to hasten our revenge
As Act III draws to a close, Verdi writes a terrifying storm into the score. While the lower strings rumble thunder and the darting wind instruments depict lightning, the male Chorus hum offstage — the vivid sound of howling winds.
SPARAFUCILE: The storm is getting closer.
The night will be darker.
It’s a fitting context for a killing, and Sparafucile has dispatched his prey. But, as Rigoletto begins to drag the body in a sack to the river, Verdi uses the power of recognition to spectacular effect — one line is heard in the distance:
‘La donna e mobile…”
If the duke is still alive, who is in the sack...?
RIGOLETTO: My daughter! …O God!…My daughter!
Ah, no, it cannot be!
What should we hear but that curse chord again?
RIGOLETTO: Gilda! My Gilda! She is dead!
Ah, the curse!