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In 1855 Verdi wrote that Rigoletto was his best opera; with tighter, more exciting, dramatic pacing and a new form of characterisation, the brilliant score features many memorable melodies, including the instantly recognisable La donna è mobile. Today, it is one of the most performed of his operas and is in the top ten opera repertoire – proving him right. His desire to attempt new things led him to the source of the story he wished to adapt; in the process, revolutionising opera.
Verdi’s proudest achievement was based on the controversial Victor Hugo play, Le roi s’amuse (The King Amuses Himself, 1832), which was banned in France after only one performance, but Verdi saw it as ‘the greatest subject and perhaps the greatest drama of modern times’. He did not see the censorship that he knew was to come as an issue, and began the process of writing the music before the Austrian authorities gave permission to do the adaption.
He considered the character of Rigoletto (or rather, Triboulet, as he was known in the play) as being ‘a creation worthy of Shakespeare’; with the snide, bitter, insulting character he portrays to the world at complete odds to the tender emotions he demonstrates towards his daughter, Gilda. Then you also have the amoral Duke who receives no comeuppance for his terrible behaviour, instead it is Rigoletto who turns villain and his innocent daughter who suffers in the end. In all, a tale equal to Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies.
Rigoletto represents Verdi’s marked division from traditional opera conventions – gone are the formal entrance arias for the characters, as has conventional recitative (the parts of the score that carry the plot forward in imitation of speech); instead Verdi made the action almost continuous, with the drama and the music more connected, focusing on the interaction between characters.
I conceived Rigoletto without arias, without finales, as an unbroken chain of duets. It is the best, the most effective subject I have so far set to music… It has very powerful situations, variety, brio, pathos.
In replacement of their entrance arias, Verdi wrote ‘themes’ for his main characters, communicating the different temperaments of Rigoletto, The Duke and Gilda; with these musical characterisations changing as they develop throughout the opera.
Containing many of his greatest tunes, including The Duke’s aforementioned La donna è mobile that Verdi kept from the cast and orchestra until the last minute, swearing the singer to secrecy, as he was so confident in how popular the tune would prove to be. Another masterpiece is the eminent quartet Bella figlia dell’amore, essentially two duets sung side-by-side, by The Duke and Maddalena, and Rigoletto and Gilda – two different dialogues on the same situation, from opposing viewpoints, but working together to intensify the drama. Verdi, himself said: ‘I never expect to do better than the Quartet. Many consider it the finest piece of ensemble writing in all of opera.’
Rigoletto truly demonstrates Verdi’s genius, and he knew it, and proclaimed it too.