What’s The Score: Rigoletto
Verdi’s own favourite opera, Rigoletto is a tragedy of Shakespearean scope, a disturbing psychological portrait of a man caught in a corrupt world, an outsider in a system built on power and privilege.
Not quite, but it’s definitely Italian. Rigoletto is the hero of one of Verdi’s greatest operas. He’s a jester; his name comes from the French ‘rigoler’ – to laugh.
Rather the opposite I’m afraid. Rigoletto’s boss is the Duke of Mantua, who employs the jester to keep his courtiers in line by mocking and humiliating them with his keen wit (all while the Duke himself is off seducing their wives and daughters).
Well he’s very handsome and charismatic (unlike Rigoletto himself, who is a hunchback and a bit of an outsider) but totally unscrupulous, especially when it comes to women.
Director Christiane Lutz thought so too. Her new production for Glyndebourne is set in the 1920s and 40s rather than today, but there are definitely echoes of #MeToo in it. In this version the Duke becomes a wealthy American movie studio boss, who has his actors (including Rigoletto, a Charlie Chaplin-like comedian) very much under his thumb.
Rigoletto is hugely unusual – that’s what makes him so fascinating. He’s a very dark character, full of anger and bitterness, a bit like Shakespeare’s King Lear. Incidentally, of all Verdi’s operas (and he wrote several adaptations of Shakespeare plays), Rigoletto is the one most often described as ‘Shakespearean’, probably because of its psychological scope and intensity.
Giuseppe Verdi was the most successful Italian opera composer of the 19th-century. Today he’s one of the most famous composers of all time, and his operas are still some of the most-performed in the repertoire.
La traviata? Falstaff? Il trovatore?
That’s it. Rigoletto was actually written at around the same time as La traviata and they have lots of similarities. They’re both very powerful domestic dramas, more interested in characters on the margins of society – jesters, prostitutes, assassins – than traditional aristocratic heroes and heroines. And they’ve both got some of the best tunes Verdi ever wrote.
The Duke’s aria ‘La donna e mobile’ is a huge crowd-pleaser that makes it onto every Best of Opera compilation (even if you think you don’t know it, you definitely do), and the Act III quartet ‘Bella figlia dell’amore’ is hard to beat – one of those tunes that you’ll find yourself humming days later, really glorious music.
Well it’s the first time we’ve ever staged it, so this debut production is a bit of a big deal. It’s directed by the talented up-and-comer Christiane Lutz, who is also making her UK debut. As I mentioned earlier, she has changed the setting and updated the action, giving Rigoletto and his daughter an intriguing back-story and creating this very stylish, very dark drama all about parents and children, and the communication problems every family faces.
Ah yes, sorry. While Rigoletto spends his days mocking men whose daughters have been seduced by the Duke, at night he goes home to Gilda, the innocent teenage daughter he has hidden away from his world in order to protect her. Unfortunately, despite his best efforts, the Duke discovers her and, well, I’m sure you can guess the rest…
You won’t get any spoilers from me, but since this is a tragedy, there are no prizes for guessing that it doesn’t end happily, and Verdi’s jester definitely doesn’t get the last laugh.
By Alexandra Coghlan
Image credits: Rigoletto, Tour 2019, photos by Richard Hubert Smith