Monday, March 24, 2014

The History of the Court Jester by Magda Romanska

“Who Is Not a Fool?”—Horace, Satires

The court jester is a universal character. He can be found in ancient Rome and in China, in Renaissance Europe and in czarist Russia, at the courts of the Middle East and in classical Sanskrit plays of ancient India. Although there were a few known female jesters, historical studies show that the majority of jesters were men. The most famous female court jesters were Astaude du Puy, who worked for Queen Henrietta Maria (1609–1669), wife of Charles I of France, and La Jardinière, who worked for the queen dowager, Catherine de Médicis. Throughout history, the best jesters would acquire legendary reputations, becoming celebrated for their sharp tongues and quick wit. Their role was more than pure amusement; they were the original “truth tellers,” whose job was to mock typical human vices of vanity, venality, snobbery, petulance, laziness, carpetbaggery, and fatuity. The court jesters aimed their humor at the usual targets: religion and the hypocrisy of its authority figures; pompous and self-serving scholars and grandiloquent artists; knavish and sycophantic court officials; and indolent, mercurial, or incompetent rulers. In Europe, the court jester would be called fool, buffoon, clown, jongleur, jogleor, joculator, stultor, scurra, fou, histrio, morion, among many other names. He was an essential fixture of the royal courts and master castles.

The typical medieval or Renaissance jester was an outsider shunned by society for one reason or another. His marginal position put him outside the social framework, but his alienation only sharpened his insight into human nature. Jesters came from a range of backgrounds, from nonconformist university dropouts to excommunicated monks. In Russia, for example, jesters “were generally selected from among the older and uglier of the serf-servants, and the older the fool or she-fool was, the droller they were supposed and expected to be. The fool had the right to sit at table with his master, and say whatever came into his head” (Otto, 1–2). Giving offense to the king, lèse-majesté, has been a grave crime throughout history, and it was severely punished, including with death. Court jesters, however, often were granted “comic dispensation,” a “Freedom from all Constraint.” They could say anything about anyone, including the king. The jester kept the master in check, giving him an honest assessment of his decisions, character, and actions. Sometimes jesters and their masters developed a strong bond and became very protective of each other. Complimenting the fool was seen as complimenting the master. In 1047, a jester named Gollet warned his master, Duke William of Normandy, of a plot. He did so in rhyme, while pounding on the duke’s door.  King Charles V of France buried his two jesters in lavish monuments to pay homage to their wisdom and wit (Doran, 291). Shakespeare’s most iconic scene is that of Hamlet holding the skull of Yorick, his beloved childhood jester, while lamenting his untimely death: “Alas, Poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.”

The jester was often represented as the only wise man of the company. Like Feste in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, he frequently spoke in improvised rhymes and sophisticated riddles, ensuring that the true meaning of his words remained obscure and beyond the understanding of common folk. The revered Polish jester Stańczyk (1480–1560), for example, was considered the most politically astute man of his era, able to predict the unfavorable turn of Polish history. Employed by three kings, Alexander, Sigmund the Old, and Sigmund Augustus, Stańczyk is known as a highly intelligent political philosopher who often spoke truth to power. In the most famous portrait of Stańczyk, by Jan Matejko, the jester, his head hanging low, is the only person at the court concerned about the news of Russians capturing the city of Smolensk in 1514. In Polish literature, Stańczyk is often perceived as the symbolic conscience of the nation. For the jester, however, no matter how exceptional and talented he was, the price of the freedom to say anything was social exclusion. The jester could never be promoted and could never fully participate in the social life of the court. He remained on the margins, an astute observer and biting commenter on social conventions and human follies. Likewise, a court jester was a slave who could never break free of his job; only the royal word could release him.

Many of the jesters were disabled: hunchbacks like Rigoletto, dwarfs, or otherwise handicapped. Since they were ostracized by society, the disabled marginal position offered them an unparalleled vantage point from which to peer into its faults and the necessary detachment from life’s passions, a vital quality in a brilliant jester. In medieval and Renaissance Europe dwarf jesters were so popular that the practice of artificially stunting children became common to keep up with demand. According to documents from 1670, dwarfs could be artificially made by “anointing babies’ spines with the grease of bats, moles, and dormice.” Other prescriptions advised various medicaments such as “the aptly named dwarf elder, knotgrass, and daisy juice and roots mixed with milk to stunt growth” (Otto, 29). Often children were kidnapped and turned into “artificial dwarfs” to be sold as court jesters. In Italy and Spain the practice was so widespread that the kidnappers had their own term, comprachicos, “child-buyers.” In Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1600), Lysander talks about it: “Get you gone, you dwarf; / You minimus, of hindering knot-grass made; / You bead, you accorn!” The Hindu book of dramaturgy, Natyasastra, advises that the best court jesters should be both dwarfs and hunchbacked. The desire to keep dwarfs and other “freaks” at the courts was almost universally viewed as a way to contain their magical capacity for evil, “an instinctive fear and distaste developing into the need both to control and appease. It did not stem from a recognition of their humanity” (Whitehead). It was believed that the touch of a dwarf could cure and fend off illness. Likewise, “the stinging wit of the jester belongs to the same family of beliefs: his bitter medicine could purge ill humour, his sharp points could draw out bad blood” (Whitehead).

Although the majority of court jesters were picked for their intelligence and quick wit, some who were developmentally challenged, with Down syndrome or autism, were used for amusement, as their antics were considered a great source of entertainment. Since they could not control their impulses they were considered truth-tellers, contributing to the later perception of madness as a source of truth. In Madness and Civilization (1988), the French philosopher Michel Foucault notes that madness was historically thought to “bring to light the real problem, which can then be truly resolved” (33). Standing outside of the ethical and hierarchical order of the court, the mentally challenged jesters represented a purging of social consciousness. They were given leeway to point out the follies of the social and political structures. Representing the mad as truth-bearers was also part of theatrical convention, as Guilfoyle (1980) notes: “Characters who go mad in renaissance drama frequently speak more truth, and deeper truth than when sane” (6). Disabled court jesters served an important function: “to correct over-evaluation, [and to call] for a revaluation of values” (Feibleman, 421–32).



Like many other historical court jesters, Verdi’s Rigoletto is hunchbacked. Since his job is to mock everyone at the court for the amusement of the Duke, he is not well liked by the courtiers. The figure of Rigoletto is based on the real-life jester Triboulet (1479–1536), who suffered from microcephaly, a neurodevelopmental disorder, and who served kings Louis XII and Francis I of France. He was deformed in appearance: “His bowed back, his short and twisted legs, his long and hanging arms, amused the ladies, who contemplated him as if he had been a monkey or a paroquet” (Doran, 305). According to legend, Triboulet was not well liked at court, and he was often physically abused. When he complained to King Francis I of a nobleman who had threatened to beat him to death, the king replied, “If he does, I will hang him a quarter of an hour afterward.” “Ah, Sir!”—responded Triboulet—“couldn’t you contrive to hang him a quarter of an hour previously?” When he was about to be beaten by a group of pages for insulting them, Triboulet also responded in rhyme. It didn’t save him, though, and eventually he was beaten. He recovered soon enough to become one of France’s most celebrated jesters.

Triboulet made his first literary appearance in François Rabelais’s Pantagruelian chronicles. In Victor Hugo’s 1832 play Le Roi s’Amuse (The King Amuses Himself), on which Verdi’s Rigoletto is based, Triboulet is malicious and mean-spirited. He spares no one and is equally cruel to each courtier who comes his way. Rejected by the world, he shows genuine emotions only toward his lone and pure daughter. In writing the play, Hugo included some elements from his famous novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame, published in 1831, modeling his Triboulet on Quasimodo, the title character of the novel. Hugo described Quasimodo as a tortured and abused man who “found around him only hatred.” Eventually, in response to the world’s malice, “he adopted it. He armed himself with the weapons that had wounded him.” Upon reading Hugo’s Le Roi s’Amuse, Verdi wrote in a letter to a friend that the story “is the greatest subject and perhaps the greatest drama of modern times. Triboulet is a creation worthy of Shakespeare!”  He “is one of the greatest creations that the theatre of all countries and all times can boast.” At that time, Verdi considered composing music for Shakespeare’s King Lear, but upon reading Hugo’s play he abandoned the project, believing that the character Triboulet had even greater dramatic potential as a blinded and grieving father. Thus, drawing on all these influences, Verdi’s Rigoletto is a composite of four characters: the real-life Triboulet, the Triboulet from Hugo’s play Le Roi s’Amuse, Quasimodo, and King Lear. Likewise, Rigoletto’s name was initially Triboletto, but eventually it became a blend of two words, “Triboulet” and the French rigoler (to laugh).


Recommended Reading:

Brenner, Milton. Opera Offstage: Passion and Politics Behind the Great Operas. New York: Walker and Company, 1996.

Budden, Julian. The Operas of Verdi. Volume I: From Oberto to Rigoletto. Oxford University Press, 1973.

Doran, John. The History of Court Fools. Boston: Francis A. Niccolls, 1858.

Feibleman, James. “The Meaning of Comedy.” The Journal of Philosophy 35, no. 16 (1938): 421–32.

Foucault, Michel. Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Vintage Books, 1988.

Fradon, Dana. The King’s Fool: A Book about Medieval and Renaissance Fools. New York: Dutton Children’s Books, 1993.

Otto, Beatrice K. Fools Are Everywhere: The Court Jester Around the World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Parker, Roger. The New Grove Guide to Verdi and His Operas. Oxford University Press, 2007.

Whitehead, James Beswick. Reflections of Rigoletto. 2001.

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.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Rigoletto: A Conversation with Professor David Rosen from Cornell University (March 2014)

Magda Romanska, BLO Dramaturg and visiting associate professor at Harvard University, talks to Professor David Rosen about Verdi’s Rigoletto. Professor Rosen is a world-renowned musicologist, a leading expert on Verdi, and professor emeritus of Music at Cornell University.  Professor Rosen was responsible for the critical edition of Verdi's Messa da Requiem (published in The Works of Giuseppe Verdi) and the Cambridge Music Handbook on Verdi’s requiem. He also coauthored a volume dedicated to the disposizione scenica of Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera.  Professor Rosen discovered in the Paris Bibliothèque de l’Opéra a passage in Verdi's manuscript score for Don Carlos which had had to be cut in order to ensure that the opera's premiere would finish before midnight. Professor Rosen was one of the first scholars to study the contemporary staging manuals (disposizioni sceniche or livrets de mise en scène) and other sources that help us reconstruct the visual aspects of 19th-century opera.

MR: One of the essential themes of Victor Hugo’s Le Roi s’Amuse (The King Amuses Himself), and Verdi’s Rigoletto is the father’s curse. As Victor Hugo’s put it:  “[M. de Saint-Vallier—Monterone in Verdi’s opera], from whom the king has taken his daughter, is jeered at and insulted by Triboulet [Rigoletto].  The father raises his arm and curses Triboulet.  From that [action] the entire play develops.  The real subject of the drama is the curse of M. de Saint-Vallier. Can you tell us how the curse functions in Hugo’s play, and in Verdi’s opera? How it is framed by the musical structure of the opera? 

DR: There are two different recurring passages of music associated with the curse: a meditative brooding one, and one expressed in a thunderclap of recognition when the curse strikes home.  The music associated with the meditative version is the first thing heard in the opera: a solo trumpet and trombone intone the rhythm of the phrase “Quel vecchio maledivami” (“That old man cursed me”), leading into a striking harmonic progression.  As in act 2 of the play,  Rigoletto recalls the curse – “that  old man cursed me” – four times in the second tableau of act 1:  before his duet with Sparafucile, twice in the extended recitative monologue that follows, and again at the beginning of the finale that culminates in the abduction of his daughter, Gilda.  These are the last appearances of the meditative curse theme in the opera.
When Rigoletto realizes that the courtiers have abducted not Ceprano’s wife but his own daughter, he tears his hair, then cries, “Ah! maledizione!!” (“La malediction!” in the play) to a harshly dissonant cadence in the minor mode, and he faints as the lowest instruments in the orchestra furiously play rapid descending chromatic scales. 
In the theater most curses unfailingly strike their mark, but at the end of act 2 of Verdi’s opera,  Monterone, led off to prison, stops to address a portrait of the Duke: “Since you were cursed by me in vain, no thunderbolt or blade striking your breast, you will live happily yet, O Duke.”  Rigoletto responds, “No, old man, you are wrong... You will have an avenger.”  (The situation comes straight from the play, although in the opera, as with the initial curse in act 1, rather than ending the act the line triggers a concluding operatic “number,” here the cabaletta of the Gilda/Rigoletto duet.)  By undoing our expectations that the curse on the Duke will be fulfilled, Monterone has in effect canceled that curse.  And Rigoletto seems to be confident at this point that Monterone’s curse upon him has already been fulfilled by the abduction and seduction of his daughter; however, as Hugo says in his preface, “[Triboulet’s] punishment does not stop halfway.”

MR: How does the ending of Rigoletto compare to Verdi’s other operas, and how should we read it? 

DR: The end of the opera follows a three-stage procedure that Verdi used in many of his operas.  The initial stage prepares the death scene, either by inflicting the mortal wound or by announcing that the designated victim is dying from poison or – in La Traviata – disease.  The second stage is a slow set piece in which the victim dies, surrounded by grieving friends, relatives, and perhaps even former enemies.  These ensembles are consolatory, and the death agony is hardly ever disturbed by any expression of rancor or gloating.  They are typically in keys with many flats (five in Rigoletto) and are either in the major mode throughout, or, as in the case of Rigoletto, begin in the minor mode but soon move to the major mode.  In the third stage, after the character dies, there is a sudden turn to the minor mode and a fast tempo unfolding the final cadence in a single span.  This often encompasses a further dramatic event, perhaps the death of a second principal character, the tenor (as in Il Corsaro, Luisa Miller, Il Trovatore); or a revelation embodied in a “punch line,”; such as Azucena’s “Egli era tuo fratello!” informing the Count that he has just  executed his own brother in Il Trovatore, or in Rigoletto, of course, “Ah! la maledizione!”

In Rigoletto, the ending is connected to the curse; it is its natural resolution, supported by the music.  Both the staging – Rigoletto tears his hair and falls, now on Gilda’s body – and the music – the same harmonic progression and descending chromatic scales in the same scoring as before – clearly link this moment with Rigoletto’s recollection of the curse occasioned by Gilda’s abduction precisely two acts earlier.  Indeed, in Verdi’s sketches the vocal line in the two passages was identical as well (mi – re – do), though in the final version he adjusted the first of the two passages, perhaps to bring it down to a more comfortable range for the baritone.  In the opera, then, the music, text, and staging all collude in representing Gilda’s abduction and, later, her death as parallel fulfillments of the curse.

MR: What is the major difference between Victor Hugo’s treatment of the ending and the curse in his play, and Verdi’s Rigoletto?  What is at stake in their different versions?

DR: In  Hugo’s play, after a doctor has coldly pronounced Blanche dead, Triboulet does not recall the curse but closes the play on the line “J’ai tué mon enfant!  J’ai tué mon enfant!”  [I killed my child!]  If “the real subject of the drama is the curse of M. de Saint-Vallier,” why does Hugo fail to refer to it here? There are psychological, even moral issues at stake here. Rigoletto views the curse as an external, almost random, force, rather like Monterone’s thunderbolt or blade that has struck him because of the curse.  True enough, Verdi and Piave do follow the play in giving Rigoletto the line, “She herself was struck by the arrow of my just revenge [giusta vendetta]” (a line the Roman censors, when the opera was performed there, altered to “stupid revenge” [stolta vendetta] in an attempt to impart some sense of remorse to the character and to characterize “vendetta” negatively).  But Rigoletto never realizes that it is through his own misdeeds that Monterone’s curse takes effect.  Rigoletto himself became the author of his own punishment: his attempt to abduct Ceprano’s wife brought about the abduction of his daughter, his attempt to kill the Duke, her death.  Through a comforting moral blindness Rigoletto is spared that cruel realization that crushes Triboulet at the end of Hugo’s tragedy.  Rigoletto never comes to acknowledge that he himself, not an impersonal force impelled by the curse, is the direct cause of his daughter’s death.  One might criticize the opera for its failure to compel Rigoletto to accept responsibility for the consequences of his actions, for supporting his comfortable view that he is the passive victim of Monterone’s curse.  But another critical move is available: to claim that the opera reveals and diagnoses Rigoletto’s moral blindness, without endorsing it.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Boston Lyric Opera's Version of Rigoletto

by Magda Romanska, Ph.D., Boston Lyric Opera Dramaturg

BLO’s version of Rigoletto returns the opera to its original historical context. The dramatic structure of the story is framed by two necessary conditions: the world in which a ruler has absolute power over life and death, and a world in which the curse of a father is to be believed and feared. Verdi was convinced that for the plot to make sense the Duke must be a lecher with power and without conscience. “The Duke must absolutely be a libertine; without that there can be no justification for Rigoletto's fear of his daughter’s leaving,” Verdi wrote in a letter to a friend. Moving the production from Paris to a smaller city in Italy, Verdi reinforced the idea of a claustrophobic space where no one can escape the fickle will of its ruler. The Duke, although acting without concern or remorse, is never punished, and this lack of poetic justice illuminates the city’s distorted moral code. 


Our production captures metaphorically that idea of the city of Mantua, a place enclosed by the dark brick wall that illustrates its hidden, unscrupulous, dark side. Chronologically, the plot moves back and forth between the open, public place of the Duke’s court to the secret spaces of the city's underworld: Rigoletto’s house, where he hides away his daughter, and the tavern where he plots the Duke’s assassination. Likewise, our production uses a divided stage to represent the two opposing realms of Mantua’s society, the public world of the Duke’s omnipotent decadence and the private, hidden realm of intimate affairs, which nonetheless remains in his powerful, omnipresent grip. Above the dark brick wall, we see the model of a city made of white marble. The model is based on a painting by Piero della Francesca (1415–92) of an ideal city, a common theme of the Renaissance era. In the painting everything is spotless, open, and transparent. The model hovers over a dark pit in which the human passions of love, lust, and revenge fuel the workings of the real city. The divided stage also represents the two sides of Rigoletto: the ugly, vicious face he dons at court, and the gentle, loving side he shows to his daughter. The image of Rigoletto’s two faces, grotesque and tender, follows Verdi’s intention: “To me there is something really fine in representing on stage this character outwardly so ugly and ridiculous, inwardly so impassioned and full of love,” Verdi wrote about the jester.


The second necessary component of the dramatic structure of Verdi’s opera is the impact and power of the father’s curse on the Duke and Rigoletto. The curse is thrown by a courtier whose daughter was abducted and seduced by the Duke, with Rigoletto goading him on. When defending his play to the censors, Victor Hugo wrote, 


This father whose daughter has been taken from him by the king is mocked and insulted by Triboulet. The father raises his arms and curses Triboulet. The whole play evolves from this. The true subject of the drama is the curse of Monsieur de St-Vallier. Now observe; we are in the second act. On whom has this curse fallen? On Triboulet the king’s buffoon? No, on Triboulet the man, who is a father, who has a heart, and a daughter. He has nothing else but his daughter in the whole world.


Verdi follows Hugo’s concept, making the father’s curse on Rigoletto the central pillar of the story. The original title of Rigoletto was, in fact, The Curse (La Maledizione), and Verdi believed that the curse is the axis around which the entire dramatic arc of the story revolves. “The whole subject lives in that curse,” he wrote in a letter to his librettist, Francesco Maria Piave, while the two were writing the opera. When under the threat of the censor the text of the opera was reworked, a revision that undermined the power of the curse, Verdi penned an impassioned letter to C.D. Marzari, the president of the Teatro la Fenice, who had ordered the rewrites: “The old man’s curse, so awesome and sublime in the original, here becomes ridiculous because the motive that drives him to curse no longer has the same importance ... Without this curse, what purpose, what meaning does the drama have?” Being himself a father, and remembering the time he spent with his daughter’s mother as the only happiness he has ever known, Rigoletto is horrified when another father on whom he has inflicted unsurpassed misery has cursed him with all his heart. The curse is a turning point for Rigoletto, a moment in which he begins to unravel. Thus, our set represents Rigoletto’s breakdown. The erotic Italian-style painting on the wall depicts Venus and Mars, one of the most sumptuous subjects of Western mythology. In our production, however, the painting is not straightforward; it is broken, fractured—like Rigoletto himself. In order for the curse to remain the turning point of the story, to assert its impact on poor Rigoletto, it has to live in the world in which it is believable and authentic, and such was the original world of Verdi’s powerful opera.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Production History of Rigoletto

by Magda Romanska, Ph.D., Boston Lyric Opera Dramaturg

Verdi’s Rigoletto is based on Victor Hugo’s 1832 play Le Roi S’amuse (The King Amuses Himself), which centers on the excesses of a cynical and ruthless king who revels in the cruel treatment of his courtiers, particularly his jester. The play was meant to depict the story of Francis I of France (1494–1547) and his famous jester Triboulet; however, the censors believed that it mocked France’s current king, Louis-Philippe (1773–1850), and thus banned it after just one performance. In response, Hugo sued the Théâtre Français, a move that turned him into a celebrity, a defender of freedom of speech in France. Unfortunately, he lost the suit and the play was banned for another 50 years. To avoid Hugo’s perturbations with censors, Verdi moved the play to Mantua, and changed the king to a duke. He also changed the title of the opera to La Maledizione (The Curse) and eventually changed it again, to Rigoletto. Both titles shifted the focus of the story from the depravity of the master to the drama of his jester. The plot now focused on the tragic story of Rigoletto, who is trapped in an impossible predicament and who eventually suffers one of man’s most horrid fates.


When Rigoletto premiered in Italy in March 1851 at the Teatro la Fenice in Venice, the critical and popular response was largely negative on account of the opera’s seeming “lack of morality”—a virginal girl is seduced by a serial womanizer, whose life she saves by sacrificing her own, leaving her grieving and crippled father in despair while the lecherous villain walks away unscathed and unpunished. The lack of poetic justice at the end of the story didn’t prevent the audiences from enjoying Verdi’s music, however, and the opera quickly overcame its initial setbacks. By 1852 Rigoletto was showing in all major Italian cities, and soon enough it was performed all over the world, from Alexandria to Constantinople to Montevideo.


In the United States, the reception of Rigoletto was also not without stumbles, as audiences’ and critics’ distaste for what they perceived to be the story’s amoral message seemed at first insurmountable. When the opera premiered on February 19, 1855, at New York’s Academy of Music, Albion, the influential weekly journal, wrote that “rumors prejudicial to the morals of Rigoletto had been most freely circulated throughout the city, inducing many who would otherwise gladly have heard the new opera, to bide their time until the press should have pronounced its dictum upon the nature of the plot.” After the opening, the critics weren’t much kinder, one calling it “not one of Verdi’s best.” The Times noted that “there is no justice, poetic or otherwise; nothing but horrors, horrors.” Following the reviews, the audiences dwindled, and the show was closed after the fifth performance.


Despite these initial setbacks, however, as in Italy, people in the United States eventually accepted the ethical implications of the plot and began enjoying the music. The 1861 revival in New York City brought some accolades, with the Herald calling Rigoletto “one of Verdi’s very best works—never sufficiently appreciated here.” The Sunday Mercury, however, called it “immoral” and argued that “no respectable member of the fair sex could patronize [the opera] without a sacrifice of both taste and modesty. [. . .] No decent citizen could wish to see it beside his wife or daughter.” The opera’s producer, Max Meretzek, sued the newspaper for libel, arguing that the story is not at all immoral because the true villain is not the Duke but Rigoletto, who is indeed punished at the end of the story. Meretzek won the suit, and the jury awarded him $1,000 in restitution.


Today, Rigoletto is one of the most often performed and most beloved operas. In the last two decades, a number of productions have changed the setting of Rigoletto: to New York City’s Little Italy of the 1950s, to The Planet of the Apes, to Mussolini’s fascist Italy, and to an Italian casino in 1960s Las Vegas, among others.