When Victor Hugo premiered his play Le roi s’amuse (The king takes his amusement) in 1832, one suspects he couldn’t have believed that it would find much of an audience. About the sexual rapaciousness of Francis I, one of the most beloved of all French kings, and perhaps hinting at the behavior of King Louis-Philippe (then in power), it would have been a controversial play at best. As the authorities closed the play after one performance, we will never know if Le roi s’amuse could have succeeded on the French stage at the time; however, the ensuing law suit that Hugo brought against the crown for freedom of speech (which he lost) made the play famous, and it became a best seller in printed form. Soon, a copy of the printed play found its way into Verdi’s hands.
What attracted Verdi to Hugo’s play was the character of the court jester, Triboulet, which Verdi thought to be an entirely original stage creature. Renamed Rigoletto and elevated to the title role in the opera that was moved from France to Mantua, Verdi fleshed out this court jester and made him as immortal as any character in opera can be. Rigoletto is much more than a tortured soul. Abused from childhood for his physical deformities, he is richly drawn and deeply human, passionate, willing to act, cunning, tortured, self-aware, and loving. He is a man of his time, when the rule of any Italian dukedom was taken by might, and when assassins offered their services to strangers in dark streets.
Today, Americans see vengeance at the scale depicted in this opera as an insane extreme. Most Americans, today, would view all acts of vengeance as yielding only evil fruit, injury upon injury, a never-ending cycle. This was not the view of Italians in the Renaissance, or in many other cultures in the world even today, where vengeance is ferocious and insatiable. The opera Rigoletto was, perhaps, one of the many influences that reshaped our perception of the dangers inherent in a hunger for vengeance, for Rigoletto will lose everything he holds dear in his vain attempt to get even.
What he loses is his daughter Gilda, his only child, the only creature on this earth who loves him, and the only thing he loves at all. Just home after a decade of convent training, barely sixteen, totally inexperienced, and infatuated with a student she met at mass, Gilda will sacrifice her life to save a seductive, hedonistic letch. Her winning presence, so perfectly drawn in a single duet and one, breath-taking aria (she has much more to sing in addition), has placed her among the most cherished of Verdi heroines.
Her self-sacrifice is hard for a 21st-century mind to accept, but when one realizes that she has been the duke’s mistress for several months before Rigoletto forces her to see the nature of her lover, and takes into account her youth, these make her action at least understandable, if heart breaking. But it is the heartbreak of Rigoletto that keeps this opera alive and in performance the world over.
Opera San José will offer six performances of a new production of Rigoletto, opening on September 6. It is advisable to order tickets earlier rather than later, as this Verdi favorite has always sold out in past opera San José productions.