Explore the music of Rigoletto
Victor Hugo’s dark, cynical story, with its fascinating ‘outsider’ anti-hero, the hunchbacked jester Rigoletto, prompted an opera in which music and drama were one as never before. This organic new relationship between character and musical style, plot and musical form, creates an utterly compelling and vivid drama, one that is often described as Shakespearean in its scope.
- The greatest 19th-century Italian opera composer, Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) wrote 28 operas during a 50-year career. They range from large-scale political tragedies (Aida, Il Trovatore, Don Carlos, Nabucco) to more intimate dramas like Rigoletto and La traviata, which revolutionised opera by turning their focus away from kings and queens and onto the lives of ordinary, everyday characters.
- Rigoletto’s musical atmosphere is distinctive – dark and brooding, charged with tragedy from the very start. We hear this from the opening Prelude, heavy with tension, as the ominous ‘curse’ theme passes from the brass into the full orchestra, but also in the sinister orchestration of Rigoletto’s first meeting with the assassin Sparafucile (accompanied by just solo cello, bass and low woodwind) and the orchestral storm in Act III which dominates the action, sweeping up all the characters in its musical force.
- Rigoletto is an outsider who doesn’t belong to the smooth-talking, outwardly civilised world of the court, and just as he breaks social conventions so Verdi’s score breaks musical ones. While the Duke sings traditional, formal arias, Rigoletto’s music refuses to conform to predictable structures, roaming freely and anarchically about in musical soliloquies that sit somewhere between speech and song.
- The musical structure of the opera also adapts to reflect this new style of drama. ‘I conceived Rigoletto without arias, without finales, as an unbroken chain of duets’ wrote Verdi. The result is an operatic thriller whose fluid, continuous score sweeps away typical set-pieces – a newly expressive and flexible musical style to reflect a newly psychological plot.
- The Shakespearean quality of Rigoletto comes from dramatic breadth of the score which holds both tragic, raw musical drama and light-hearted, easy tunes within a single narrative. The glossy, glib music of the Duke and his courtiers generates a wonderful friction with the uncomfortable, craggy scope of Rigoletto’s music or the innocent sincerity and sweetness of Gilda’s.
- The recurring ‘curse’ theme, first heard in the Prelude, provides a musical thread that runs throughout the whole opera, resurfacing as each character contemplates or realises their fate. It becomes a touchstone, a recurring idea that allows Verdi to sustain more complex and sustained emotional and dramatic development through the opera.
- The Duke’s crowd-pleasing Act III aria is a perfect musical mirror to this anti-hero. Insanely catchy and smoothly tuneful, it catches the easy-come-easy-go spirit of a Duke for whom both love and women are ever-changeable, swapped freely and without care from day to day. Ironically while the text criticises women’s fickleness it is the Duke’s own inconstancy that is betrayed here.
- In many ways this quartet is the dramatic climax of the opera. Verdi brings together four very different characters, all bound together by Rigoletto’s plot for revenge. Their musical lines are all different and reflect their individual personalities.
- The Duke starts the quartet with a swaggering, well-practised love song. The coquettish Maddalena responds in flirtatious, brittle music. Outside the window Gilda watches horrified, singing her horror in drooping, weeping little phrases. Rigoletto also watches on – angry, but confident in his imminent revenge.