Matthew LA Opera’s Artist in Residence, is the conductor of Rigoletto.
Rigoletto is a thunderbolt, a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence—even for Verdi. It’s so familiar to opera audiences, however, that we might forget what an explosive, revolutionary piece it is, much the same way that overexposure to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony has the tendency to blind us to that piece’s strangeness and messiness. Rigoletto crosses a threshold in operatic history; it contains a kind of quantum leap. It is here that Verdi, whose music had so far wrestled with two seemingly contradictory impulses—his gift for glorious, long-spun melodies in the mold of the bel canto tradition and a keen dramatic instinct that gave his music a rough-edged, distinctly un-bel canto quality—finally united these two tendencies.
For the first time, Verdi had at his disposal a libretto (by Francesco Maria Piave, based on Victor Hugo’s Le Roi s’amuse) bold and intense enough to let him strut his stuff both as a peerless tunesmith and a ruthless, eagle-eyed dramatist. In Rigoletto, the mature Verdi spreads his wings.
When asked, later in his career, which among his operas was his favorite, Verdi replied “Speaking as an amateur, La Traviata; as a professional, Rigoletto.” (Of course, he hadn’t yet written Otello or Falstaff when he gave this answer.) Yes, Violetta might give our heartstrings a special tug, but Rigoletto is unmatched in its tautness and intensity. Here is a world of Jungian archetypes: the helpless innocent (Gilda); the callous youth (the Duke); the assassin (Sparafucile); the whore (Maddalena). Rigoletto himself, however, embodies multiple archetypes over the course of the evening: he is the jester, the father, the ruthless avenger, the helpless old man. This is a brilliant sleight of hand: to work with the deepest archetypes of human consciousness, but to treat them dynamically. No wonder Verdi found Victor Hugo’s creation to be “worthy of Shakespeare.” Rigoletto is one of the only figures in Western literature whose pathos rivals that of King Lear.
The piece may derive some of its primal power from events in Verdi’s life: the composer’s two children had died in their infancy, and his wife died at the age of 26. Verdi seems to have felt a complex sympathy for his protagonist, a widowed court jester whose young daughter Gilda is the only bright spot in his life. Rigoletto’s powerful love for Gilda grows suffocating, overwhelming; he keeps her shut in their house, and refuses to tell her anything about himself or her deceased mother. It’s too painful for him. And Gilda rebels, as any teenager would in such a situation. This tragedy is all the more painful for being founded on misdirected love.
Rigoletto is made of highlight after highlight, but I want to draw special attention to the protagonist’s overwhelming aria in the second act, “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata!” [Courtiers, you vile accursed race!] It’s fitting, given Verdi’s obsession with dramatic effectiveness, that one of his most important musical breakthroughs is the result of a specific dramatic necessity. In the Italian operatic tradition up until Rigoletto, arias generally gave voice to a static emotional state; they were not the locus of change or internal evolution. “Cortigiani” shatters that convention.
At this point in the drama, Rigoletto is desperately searching for his daughter, who has been abducted by the Duke’s courtiers. In the aria’s first section, Rigoletto rages at them, the string section seconding him with a furious ostinato—but before long he sees that his rage will get him nowhere. He realizes that he has to try a different tack, and so must the music. Mid-aria, Verdi slams on the brakes and shifts from an intense andante mosso agitato to a servile adagio; Rigoletto pleads and cajoles the courtiers, trying to win their sympathy. This too fails, and Rigoletto finally crumples, weeping openly; the music opens into a heartrendingly beautiful D-flat major, the voice accompanied by a sympathetic solo cello. This newly dynamic aria structure, which would serve Verdi for the rest of his life, is the result of a particular psychological necessity. As always in Verdi, the needs of the drama and the realities of human psychology are the driving force behind the music. In Rigoletto, the union of these elements is unforgettable, and almost unbearably intense.