Verdi was commissioned to write a new opera by the La Fenice opera house in Venice in 1850. By this time he was already a well-known composer and had a degree of freedom in choosing the works he would prefer to set to music. He then asked Francesco Maria Piave (with whom he had already created Ernani, I due Foscari, Macbeth, Il Corsaro and Stiffelio) to examine the play Kean by Alexandre Dumas, père, but he felt he needed a more energetic subject to work on.
Verdi soon stumbled upon Victor Hugo's five-act play Le roi s'amuse. He later explained that "The subject is grand, immense, and there is a character that is one of the greatest creations that the theatre can boast of, in any country and in all history." It was a highly controversial subject, and Hugo himself had already had trouble with censorship in France, which had banned productions after its first performance nearly twenty years earlier (it would not be performed again until 1882). As Austria at that time directly controlled much of Northern Italy, it came before the Austrian Board of Censors. Hugo's play depicted a king (Francis I of France) as an immoral and cynical womanizer, something that was not accepted in Europe during the Restoration period.
From the beginning, Verdi was aware of the risks, as was Piave. In a letter which Verdi wrote to Piave: "Use four legs, run through the town and find me an influential person who can obtain the permission for making Le Roi s'amuse." Correspondence between a prudent Piave and an already committed Verdi followed, but the two underestimated the power and the intentions of Austrians and remained at risk. Even the friendly Guglielmo Brenna, secretary of La Fenice, who had promised them that they would not have problems with the censors, was wrong. At the beginning of the summer of 1850, rumours started to spread that Austrian censorship was going to forbid the production. The censors considered the Hugo work to verge on lèse majesté and would never permit such a scandalous work to be performed in Venice. In August, Verdi and Piave prudently retired to Busseto, Verdi's hometown, to continue the composition and prepare a defensive scheme. They wrote to the theatre, assuring them that the censor's doubts about the morality of the work were not justified but since very little time was left, very little could be done. At the time, Piave and Verdi had titled the opera La maledizione (The Curse), and this unofficial title was used by Austrian censor De Gorzkowski in an emphatic letter written in December 1850 in which he definitively denied consent to its production, calling it "a repugnant [example of] immorality and obscene triviality."
In order not to waste all their work, Piave tried to revise the libretto and was even able to pull from it another opera, Il Duca di Vendome, in which the sovereign was with a duke and both the hunchback and the curse disappeared. Verdi was completely against this proposed solution and preferred instead to have direct negotiations with censors, arguing over each and every point of the work. At this point, Brenna, La Fenice's secretary, showed the Austrians some letters and articles depicting the bad character but the great value of the artist, helping to mediate the dispute. By January 1851 the parties were able to agree that the action of the opera would be moved from the royal court of France to a duchy of France or Italy, and some of the characters would have to be renamed. In the new version the Duke reigns over Mantua and belongs to the Gonzaga family. The House of Gonzaga had long been extinct by the mid-19th century, and the Dukedom of Mantua no longer existed, thus no one could be offended. The scene in which the sovereign retires to Gilda's bedroom would be deleted and the visit of the Duke to the Taverna (inn) was no longer intentional, but provoked by a trick. The hunchback jester (originally called Triboulet) was renamed Rigoletto from a parody of Hugo's play, Rigoletti, ou Le dernier des fous (Rigoletti, or The last of the fools). By 14 January, the opera's definitive title had become Rigoletto.
Verdi finally completed the composition of the opera on 5 February 1851, a little more than a month before the premiere, although as he worked on the final stages of Act 3, Piave had already arranged for the sets to be designed. The singers were given some of their music to learn on 7 February. However, Verdi kept at least a third of the score at Busseto. He brought it with him when he arrived in Venice for the rehearsals on 19 February and would continue to refine the orchestration during the rehearsal period. For the première, La Fenice had cast Felice Varesi as Rigoletto, the young tenor Raffaele Mirate as the Duke, and Teresa Brambilla as Gilda (although Verdi would have preferred Teresa De Giuli Borsi). Due to the high risk of unauthorised copying, Verdi had demanded the maximum secrecy from all his singers and musicians. Mirate had use of his score only a few evenings before the première and had to swear that he would not sing or even whistle the tune of "La donna è mobile" except during the rehearsals.
Rigoletto premiered on 11 March 1851 in a sold-out La Fenice as the first part of a double bill with Giacomo Panizza's ballet Faust. Gaetano Mares conducted, and the sets were designed and executed by Giuseppe Bertoja and Francesco Bagnara. The opening night was a complete triumph, especially the scena drammatica and the Duke's cynical aria, "La donna è mobile", which was sung in the streets the next morning (Verdi had maximised the aria's impact by only revealing it to the cast and orchestra a few hours before the premiere, and forbidding them to sing, whistle or even think of the melody outside of the theatre). Many years later, Giulia Cora Varesi, the daughter of Felice Varesi (the original Rigoletto), described her father's performance at the premiere. Varesi was very uncomfortable with the false hump he had to wear; he was so uncertain that, even though he was quite an experienced singer, he had a panic attack when it was his turn to enter the stage. Verdi immediately realised he was paralysed and roughly pushed him on the stage, so he appeared with a clumsy tumble. The audience, thinking it was an intentional gag, was very amused.
Rigoletto was a great box-office success for La Fenice and Verdi's first major Italian triumph since the 1847 premiere of Macbeth in Florence. It initially had a run of 13 performances and was revived in Venice the following year, and again in 1854. Despite a rather disastrous production in Bergamo shortly after its initial run at La Fenice, the opera soon entered the repertory of Italian theatres. By 1852, it had premiered in all the major cities of Italy, although sometimes under different titles due to the vagaries of censorship (e.g. as Viscardello, Lionello, and Clara de Perth). From 1852, it also began to be performed in major cities worldwide, reaching as far afield as Alexandria and Constantinople in 1854 and both Montevideo and Havana in 1855. The UK premiere took place on 14 May 1853 at what is now the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in London with Giovanni Matteo Mario as the Duke of Mantua and Giorgio Ronconi as Rigoletto. In the US, the opera was first seen on 19 February 1855 at New York's Academy of Music in a performance by the Max Maretzek Italian Opera Company.
20th century and beyond
In modern times, it has become a staple of the standard operatic repertoire. It appears as number 9 (with 395 performances) on the Operabase list of the most-performed operas worldwide between 2008/2009 and 2012/13 seasons, and was also the 9th most frequently performed opera in Italy during that period.
Several modern productions have radically changed the original setting. These include Jonathan Miller's 1982 production for the English National Opera, which is set amongst the Mafia in New York City's Little Italy during the 1950s; Doris Dörrie's 2005 production for the Bavarian State Opera, where the Court of Mantua became The Planet of the Apes; director Linda Brovsky's production for Seattle Opera, placing the story in Mussolini's fascist Italy, in 2004 (repeated in 2014); and Michael Mayer's 2013 production for the Metropolitan Opera, which is set in a casino in 1960s Las Vegas. Different characters portray different archetypes from the Rat Pack era, with the Duke becoming a Frank Sinatra-type character and Rigoletto becoming Don Rickles. In March 2014, Lindy Hume, artistic director of Australia's Opera Queensland staged the opera set in the party-going world of disgraced former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.
Time: the Sixteenth century
Scene 1: A room in the palace of Duke of Mantua
At a ball in his palace, the Duke sings of a life of pleasure with as many women as possible: "Questa o quella" ("This woman or that"). He has seen an unknown beauty in church and desires to possess her, but he also wishes to seduce the Countess of Ceprano. Rigoletto, the Duke's hunchbacked court jester, mocks the husbands of the ladies to whom the Duke is paying attention, including the Count Ceprano, and advises the Duke to get rid of him by prison or death. The Duke laughs indulgently, but Ceprano is not amused. Marullo, one of the guests at the ball, informs the courtiers that Rigoletto has a "lover", which astonishes them. The courtiers resolve to take vengeance on Rigoletto for making fun of them. The festivities are interrupted by the arrival of the elderly Count Monterone, whose daughter the Duke had seduced. Rigoletto provokes him further by making fun of his helplessness to avenge his daughter's honor. Monterone confronts the Duke, and is immediately arrested by the Duke's guards. Before being led off to prison, Monterone curses Rigoletto for having mocked his righteous anger. The curse terrifies Rigoletto, who is superstitious and, like many people at the time, believes that an old man's curse has real power.
Scene 2: A street, with the courtyard of Rigoletto's house
Preoccupied with the old man's curse, Rigoletto approaches his house and is accosted by the assassin Sparafucile, who walks up to him and offers his services. Rigoletto declines for the moment, but leaves open the possibility of hiring Sparafucile later, should the need arise. Sparafucile wanders off, after repeating his own name a few times. Rigoletto contemplates the similarities between the two of them: "Pari siamo!" ("We are alike!"); Sparafucile kills men with his sword, and Rigoletto uses "a tongue of malice" to stab his victims. Rigoletto opens a door in the wall and returns home to his daughter Gilda. They greet each other warmly: "Figlia!" "Mio padre!" ("Daughter!" "My father!"). Rigoletto has been concealing his daughter from the Duke and the rest of the city, and she does not know her father's occupation. Since he has forbidden her to appear in public, she has been nowhere except to church and does not even know her own father's name.
When Rigoletto has gone, the Duke appears and overhears Gilda confess to her nurse Giovanna that she feels guilty for not having told her father about a young man she had met at the church. She says that she fell in love with him, but that she would love him even more if he were a student and poor. As she declares her love, the Duke enters, overjoyed. Gilda, alarmed, calls for Giovanna, unaware that the Duke had sent her away. Pretending to be a student, the Duke convinces Gilda of his love: "È il sol dell'anima" ("Love is the sunshine of the soul"). When she asks for his name, he hesitantly calls himself Gualtier Maldè. Hearing sounds and fearing that her father has returned, Gilda sends the Duke away after they quickly trade vows of love: "Addio, addio" ("Farewell, farewell"). Alone, Gilda meditates on her love for the Duke, whom she believes is a student: "Gualtier Maldè!... Caro nome" ("Dearest name").
Later, Rigoletto returns: "Riedo!... perché?" ("I've returned!... why?"), while the hostile courtiers outside the walled garden (believing Gilda to be the jester's mistress, unaware she is his daughter) get ready to abduct the helpless girl. They tell Rigoletto that they are actually abducting the Countess Ceprano. He sees that they are masked and asks for a mask for himself; while they are tying the mask onto his face, they also blindfold him. Blindfolded and deceived, he holds the ladder steady while they climb up to Gilda's room: Chorus: "Zitti, zitti" ("Softly, softly"). With her father's unknowing assistance Gilda is carried away by the courtiers. Left alone, Rigoletto removes his mask and blindfold, and realizes that it was in fact Gilda who was carried away. He collapses in despair, remembering the old man's curse.
The Duke's Palace
The Duke is concerned that Gilda has disappeared: "Ella mi fu rapita!" ("She was stolen from me!") and "Parmi veder le lagrime" ("I seem to see tears"). The courtiers then enter and inform him that they have captured Rigoletto's mistress: Chorus: "Scorrendo uniti" ("We went together at nightfall"). By their description, he recognizes it to be Gilda and rushes off to the room where she is held: "Possente amor mi chiama" ("Mighty love beckons me"). Pleased by the Duke's strange excitement, the courtiers now make sport with Rigoletto, who enters singing. He tries to find Gilda by pretending to be uncaring, as he fears she may fall into the hands of the Duke. Finally, he admits that he is in fact seeking his daughter and asks the courtiers to return her to him: "Cortigiani, vil razza dannata" ("Accursed race of courtiers"). Rigoletto attempts to run into the room in which Gilda is being held, but the courtiers block the way. Gilda enters. The courtiers leave the room, believing Rigoletto has gone mad. Gilda describes to her father what has happened to her in the palace: "Tutte le feste al tempio" ("On all the blessed days"). In a duet Rigoletto swears vengeance against the Duke, while Gilda pleads for her lover: "Sì! Vendetta, tremenda vendetta!" ("Yes! Revenge, terrible revenge!").
A street outside Sparafucile's house
A portion of Sparafucile's house is seen, with two rooms open to the view of the audience. Rigoletto and Gilda arrive outside. The Duke's voice can be heard singing "La donna è mobile" ("Woman is fickle"). Rigoletto makes Gilda realize that it is the Duke who is in the assassin's house attempting to seduce Sparafucile's sister, Maddalena: "Bella figlia dell’amore" ("Beautiful daughter of love").
Rigoletto bargains with the assassin, who is ready to murder his guest for 20 scudi. Rigoletto orders Gilda to put on a man's clothes to prepare to leave for Verona and states that he plans to follow later. With falling darkness, a thunderstorm approaches and the Duke decides to spend the rest of the night in the house. Sparafucile directs him to the ground floor sleeping quarters, resolving to kill him in his sleep.
Gilda, who still loves the Duke despite knowing him to be unfaithful, returns dressed as a man and stands outside the house. Maddalena, who is smitten with the Duke, begs Sparafucile to spare his life. Sparafucile reluctantly promises her that if by midnight another victim can be found, he will kill the other instead of the Duke. Gilda, overhearing this exchange, resolves to sacrifice herself for the Duke, and enters the house. Sparafucile stabs her and she collapses, mortally wounded.
At midnight, when Rigoletto arrives with money, he receives a corpse wrapped in a sack, and rejoices in his triumph. Weighting it with stones, he is about to cast the sack into the river when he hears the voice of the Duke, sleepily singing a reprise of his "La donna è mobile" aria. Bewildered, Rigoletto opens the sack and, to his despair, discovers his dying daughter. For a moment, she revives and declares she is glad to die for her beloved: "V'ho ingannato" ("Father, I deceived you"). She dies in his arms. Rigoletto cries out in horror: "La maledizione!" ("The curse!")
The orchestra calls for 2 flutes (Flute 2 doubles piccolo), 2 oboes (Oboe 2 doubles English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns in Eb, D, C, Ab, G, and F, 2 trumpets in C, D, and Eb, 3 trombones, cimbasso, timpani, bass drum and cymbals, strings.Offstage: Banda, bass drum, 2 bells, thunder machine
Onstage: Violins I and II, violas, and contrabasses
Musicologist Julian Budden regards the opera as "revolutionary", just as Beethoven' Eroica Symphony was: "the barriers between formal melody and recitative are down as never before. In the whole opera, there is only one conventional double aria [...and there are...] no concerted act finales." Verdi used that same word – "revolutionary" – in a letter to Piave, and Budden also refers to a letter which Verdi wrote in 1852 in which the composer states that "I conceived Rigoletto almost without arias, without finales but only an unending string of duets."
Budden's conclusions about this opera and its place in Verdi's output are summed up by noting that:
Just after 1850 at the age of 38 Verdi closed the door on a period of Italian opera with Rigoletto
. The so-called ottocento
in music is finished. Verdi will continue to draw on certain of its forms for the next few operas, but in a totally new spirit.
There have been dozens of commercial recordings of Rigoletto. The earliest ones include the 1912 performance in French with François Ruhlmann conducting the orchestra and chorus of the Opéra Comique (Pathé) and the 1916 performance in Italian with Lorenzo Molajoli conducting the orchestra and chorus of La Scala (Columbia Records). The first LP edition of Rigoletto (also the very first opera recording on LP) was released by RCA Victor in 1950 conducted by Renato Cellini and featured Leonard Warren in the title role. The opera has also been recorded in German with Wilhelm Schüchter conducting the orchestra and chorus of the Berlin State Opera in a 1953 recording for EMI Records and in English with Mark Elder conducting the orchestra and chorus of the English National Opera in a 1983 recording for EMI. In the 21st century there have been several live performances released on DVD including a 2001 performance from London's Royal Opera House with Paolo Gavanelli as Rigoletto and Marcelo Álvarez as the Duke (BBC/Opus Arte) and a 2006 performance at the Opernhaus Zürich with Leo Nucci as Rigoletto and Piotr Beczala as The Duke (ArtHaus Musik). The Duke of Mantua's arias, particularly "La donna è mobile" and "Questa o quella", have long been showcases for the tenor voice and appear on numerous recital discs. Amongst Enrico Caruso's earliest recordings are both these arias, recorded with piano accompaniment in 1902 and again in 1908 with orchestra. Luciano Pavarotti, who has recorded the arias for several recital discs, also sings The Duke on three complete studio recordings of the opera: Decca (1972) conducted by Richard Bonynge; Decca (1989) conducted by Riccardo Chailly and Deutsche Grammophon (1993) conducted by James Levine.
Rigoletto has been a popular subject for movies since the silent film era. On 15 April 1923, Lee DeForest presented 18 short films in his sound-on-film process Phonofilm, including an excerpt of Act Two of Rigoletto with Eva Leoni and Company. One of the most famous films based on the opera is the 1982 film by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle starring Luciano Pavarotti as The Duke and Ingvar Wixell as Rigoletto. Some film versions, such as the 1993 children's film Rigoletto, are based on the opera's plot, but do not use Verdi's music. Curtiss Clayton's 2003 film Rick, set in modern-day New York, has a plot based on Rigoletto, but apart from "La donna è mobile" heard in the background during a restaurant scene, does not include any other music from the opera. In the 21st century, the opera was filmed as Rigoletto Story directed by Vittorio Sgarbi with costumes by Vivienne Westwood. First screened at the Venice Biennale in 2004, it subsequently received two Grammy nominations. In September 2010, RAI Television filmed the opera on location in Mantua with the court scenes taking place in the Palazzo Te. The film faithfully followed Verdi's original specification for the action to take place over two days, and each act was performed at the time of day indicated in the libretto. Broadcast live to 148 countries, the film starred Plácido Domingo in the title role, and Vittorio Grigolo as The Duke. The plot of the film Quartet revolves around the quartet "Bella figlia dell’amore", with which the film concludes.
Adaptations of the opera's music include Franz Liszt's Rigoletto Paraphrase, a piano transcription of "Bella figlia dell’amore" (the famous quartet from Act 3) and a Fantasia on Rigoletto (Op.82) by Sigismond Thalberg which was published in Paris in the 1860s.