Thursday, March 20, 2014

Censorship and Subversion: the Verdi and Piave Rigoletto

Kevin Galiè, Ben Gebo Photography 

On February 13, Boston Lyric Opera partnered with the French Cultural Center and Dante Alighieri Society of Massachusetts to present Le Roi s’Amuse and Rigoletto: How Hugo and Verdi Shocked the Censors.  Coro Dante conductor, Kevin Galiè presented a lecture on Victor Hugo’s and Verdi’s struggle against censorship in their respective works about the tragic court jester set in the decadent courts of French and Italian royalty, respectively.  French Cultural Center actors Mark Leuning and Suzanne Pergal performed scenes in French from Hugo’s original play Le Roi s’Amuse and BLO Artists Maggie Finnegan, Omar Najmi, and James Myers performed the equivalent scenes and arias from Verdi’s Rigoletto.  The side-by-side scene performances showcased how each interpretation critiqued the governmental powers in question.

Kevin Galiè joins In the Wings to share more about Verdi and Piave’s subversion of Austrian censors before the premiere of Rigoletto.  For more production history on Rigoletto, click here.

When Rigoletto premiered in 1851, Italy was only nine short years away from its Risorgimento – its great civil war of unification – which ironically happened at the same time as the American Civil War (1860-65). In the censorship of Rigoletto, it’s possible that Verdi and Piave were only driven to put in even more esoteric and subtle references and incitements to the current state of the peoples of the Italian peninsula.  There was no “country” at the time – Italy was a series of kingdoms, including the Vatican papal states that were all of central Italy.
Verdi had many censors, including the French, the Austrians, the Italians, and the Pope.  Verdi, in turn censored his librettist, Francesco Maria Piave, always asking for fewer words.  Victor Hugo – who wrote the play Le Roi s’Amuse, upon which Rigoletto was based – was looking to ridicule with farce and mockery.  Hugo’s King is modeled after Francis the First (c. 1520), but France’s king in 1832, when Le Roi s’Amuse was premiered, was Louis-Phillippe, and his administration took direct offense.  Famously, Le Roi s’Amuse was suppressed in 1832, two years after the 1830 French Charter of Abolition of Censorship, which stated: “The French have the right to publish; censorship must never be re-established.”  Piave and Verdi were looking to ridicule with cutting tragedy and no-holds-barred obscenity and obscene inference.  Their Duke is modeled after Vincenzo Gonzaga (1562-1612), the Duke of Mantua.
The Austrian censor De Gorzkowski in December of 1850 referred to Piave’s libretto as “a repugnant immorality and obscene triviality.”  In his article “Due facce di Rigoletto,” Michele Girardi names six points of agreement for the censors, described as “Catolicissimi.”

·         The action of the drama must be transported from the French court to an independent ducal of Bourgogne, Normandy, or a small Italian principality in the Farnese court.

·         The original character types of Hugo may be conserved, changing the names according to the situation of the time period.

·         The scene must be avoided in which Francis I, king of France, (in Rigoletto, the Duke of Bourgogne) declares resolutely to profit from the key to Gilda’s room.  Another scene must be substituted, conserving decency without diminishing the interest of the drama.

·         At the lovers’ meeting in the tavern, the Duke arrives because of a trick, not intentionally.  The hunchback Triboulet is renamed Rigoletto, and the opera is renamed Rigoletto.

·         At the appearance of the sack containing the daughter of Rigoletto, Verdi is allowed to make whatever modifications necessary.

·         With the above modifications, Verdi doesn’t need to open the opera before February 28 or March 1 (a tight window before Ash Wednesday, 1851).
Piave and Verdi were censored, but it backfired. By a deft rewriting of allusion, inference, and metaphor, they created an opera that the Italian native-speakers would “get” (a message that the Risorgimento was coming and here are the reasons), but that would go right over the heads of the occupying “German-speakers.”

I can’t presume to know what exactly was in Verdi’s and Piave’s minds when they had to deal with the censors and telling this story, but being both a musician and an Italian speaker, living there four months a year has given me a chance to crawl inside the Verdian-Italian mentality, albeit 150 years later, and to understand the very subtle shades of meaning I believe lie in this redacted, changed, partially butchered version of Piave’s original. In short, I believe the Hugo play was a straight-out farce criticizing the King of France, while in their version Piave and Verdi were forced to make lemonade when given the lemons of censorship. There are many fantastically key moments in this opera that are only fleetingly alluded to, or that happen only by deduction or inference.

Suzanne Pergal (Blanche) and Mark Leuning (Le Roi)
Maggie Finnegan (Gilda) and Omar Najmi (The Duke)
at the French Cultural Center
Ben Gebo Photography for Boston Lyric Opera
Piave’s libretto wastes no time. Instead of drawing the audience gradually into the action, as does Hugo’s Le Roi s’Amuse, at every turn from beginning to end Piave gets right to the obscene, scathing review of nobility. Verdi does the same, opening the opera by heralding a clean unison C or “do,” on the brass, which is then polluted by the angry and dirty diminished seventh chord. In fact, the first two measures of the opera, musically, are a metaphor for the entire work: a repeated C/”do”—arguably the cleanest, purest note, represented by Gilda, or in my opinion the Italian character, polluted only by the minority of Italians in 1851 who may have stained the nobility.  Then the note is crashed, violated, put into a sack by the diminished seventh chord – the C is in the diminished chord, but at the bottom of the chord – the way Gilda ends up dead in a sack.  And the Italian people end up under the yoke of Austria (with the Vatican in the middle, and the Kingdom of the two Sicilys in the south).  This musical ability to paint the action is not something that can be done in a spoken play; many things that are not said with words in Rigoletto are said with music.

The opera is full of double meanings and outrageously obscene references – almost too much to be mentioned here.  It is impossible to know completely how these phrases fell upon the patriotically inclined Italian in 1851; I think they were just subtle enough for the Austrian bilingual listeners to understand them, but for the Italian listeners to feel them strike their hearts and ring the bell of the coming unification.

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