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Rigoletto – created by writer rebels

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

Giuseppe Verdi and Victor Hugo were both artists, both political revolutionaries and both besieged by the controlling, censoring courts. Repressed in their content they still managed to convey their distrust for those in power through their artistic outpouring. Hugo’s play Le roi s'amuse was banned after one performance and then went on to become Verdi’s Rigoletto.

They also both suffered the terrible loss of a daughter, Hugo’s daughter drowning tragically in a boating accident and Verdi’s eldest daughter dying young. Maybe then it is no surprise that the theme of daughters is represented so constantly within their work. Rigoletto’s love for Gilda must have resonated strongly as well as the fierce need to protect her with the tragic ending a source of catharsis for them both.

As a much as they could sympathise with Rigoletto they could also draw some parallels with The Duke as both had a tirade of lovers and wives that caused controversy among their social contemporaries. This leads us to the reason why both men were so able to convey the depth of human character in their work.

Putting aside their personal lives and looking at their work as visionaries, renowned theatre critic George Bernard Shaw’s comment, ‘the chief glory of Victor Hugo as a stage poet was to have provided libretti for Verdi,’ is left resolute as they were both undeniably masters of their own respective fields. Apart from changing the location and names for censorship reasons Verdi stayed loyal to Hugo’s plot and characters.

In return Victor Hugo was actually envious of how Verdi was able to tell his story. 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.

Cameron Mackintosh, producer of Les Miserables another one of Hugo’s adapted works that has triumphed, this time as a musical, notes, ‘its strength lies in Hugo's observation of character, which crosses generations and cultures.’ The reason that Rigoletto continues to be an enduring success today and the thing that binds the two men together is that fact that they saw humans instead of characters, they saw blurred lines instead of black and white, they created multi-layered intricate personas for the stage. The Duke is charming yet lecherous, Rigoletto himself is contemptable but redeemable in his love for Gilda.

Although you can say that eventually both of the artists found peace Verdi adopting his cousin’s daughter and eventually walking her down the aisle as he would have done for his own daughter. Hugo, however, had less luck with his family and mistress all dying before him, his remaining daughter sent to an insane asylum, left only with his lasting love; the one for his country, ‘Woe to anyone who harms France! I do declare I will die a fanatic patriot.’ And he did.