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A Guide to Rigoletto – Debauchery in the White House

29 July 2019
A man is dressed in a suit and tie. The silhouette of a jester is on the blue wall in the background.

If you loved Pablo Larraín’s Jackie (2016) then you will love our Autumn 2019 Season’s Rigoletto set in the White House during the Kennedy era. The slick mafia-esque suits and Americana-pop style will entice thoughts of the swinging 60s but don’t let that trick you into thinking Rigoletto will be a light, happy affair.

From its risqué start; based upon Victor Hugo’s Le Roi s’amuse which was banned after just one show then forbidden from adaptation due to immoral content, Rigoletto continues to excite today. Known for its famous, La donna è mobile’ (Woman is Fickle) The Duke of Mantua's canzone; a catchy tune which you will be whistling for days after.

For those who are yet to discover this riveting opera we have a brief summary for you below, be warned there are spoilers for those who don’t know the plot.

The opera opens with the court jester, Rigoletto, despised by the courtiers for encouraging The Duke to seduce their wives and daughters. He then ridicules those who are victim to this, mocking them with unforgiving cruelty. Monterone is the latest victim to experience this and places a haunting curse on Rigoletto. On his way home, Rigoletto, shaken by the curse, is met by Sparafucile, an assassin who offers his services. The court suspecting Rigoletto of having a secret mistress, begin to plot against him.

However, as the story continues we discover a new side to Rigoletto, his harsh tongue replaced with an overwhelming and tender care for his secret daughter, Gilda, whom he keeps hidden from the court. The audience warm to Rigoletto empathising with his fatherly love especially when he tells Gilda of her mother’s death. Rigoletto’s lament mirrors Verdi’s own tragic loss of wife and child making, ‘Deh non parlare al misero’, one of the most heart-wrenching duets, fuelled by Verdi’s own anguish. It is also a disturbing foreshadowing of what is to come.

An unsuspecting Gilda is then discovered by the Duke who takes the disguise of a poor student. The pair then declare their newfound love for each other. Soon after he leaves, Gilda is then abducted by the spiteful courtiers out to punish Rigoletto, who, at discovering her disappearance searches the palace for her only to discover she has already been raped by The Duke. He swears revenge and pays the assassin to kill The Duke, who is lured in by the assassin’s sister, Maddalena. Father and daughter then watch as The Duke is seduced himself. Heartbroken but still loyal to the Duke, Gilda disguises herself, planning to sacrifice herself in his place.

The mounting tension accumulates to a horrifying climax; a sick twist defies what Rigoletto may be able to bear, ‘…as daughter Gilda dies in his arms, the image of a man driven as much by hate as by love was powerfully imprinted’ (Rian Evans, The Guardian, 2005). The doomed Rigoletto is left a tragic Shakespearean figure; the joke was on him.

Hugo’s title Le Roi s’amuse translated means, The King Amuses Himself which is excruciatingly how the opera ends. The Duke, humming, walking off carefree into the night; not knowing how close to death he was or how Gilda gave her life for his.

Although Hugo’s original play was set in the 1520s the dynamics of a powerful male who is not held accountable for his actions is still valid; it is hard to look at The Duke and not see the parallels with politics today.

Don’t miss this chance to see Verdi’s best opera, in this unmissable production, and decipher for yourself if the world has changed much since the 1520s.