Music by Giuseppe Verdi

Libretto by Francesco Maria Piave

One of opera's most vivid and compelling characters, a vengeful court jester, desperately tries to protect his daughter from disaster in this heart-wrenching tragedy. The first of two world-class casts led by Music Director Nicola Luisotti stars Željko Lučić, "whose vocal artistry is exceptional" (The New York Times); Aleksandra Kurzak, "a superstar in the making" (The Guardian, London); and, as the lecherous Duke, Francesco Demuro, "whose open, bright, superbly focused tone was reminiscent of Pavarotti" (Opera News). The equally impressive next cast stars Marco Vratogna, who, as the sinister Iago in Otello (2009), thrilled San Francisco Opera audiences with his "vocal power and theatrical electricity" (San Francisco Chronicle); Albina Shagimuratova, "a phenomenon that must be heard to be believed" (Opera News); and Merola Opera Program graduate Arturo Chacón-Cruz with his "clarion tone and piercingly clean top notes" (Washington Times).

Sung in Italian with English supertitles
Approximate running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes including one intermission

Production photos: Cory Weaver


Rigoletto Zeljko Lucic SEP 7, 11, 15, 18, 21
Rigoletto Marco Vratogna SEP 8, 12, 16, 19, 23, 25, 30
Gilda Aleksandra Kurzak * SEP 7, 11, 15, 18, 21, 25
Gilda Albina Shagimuratova SEP 8, 12, 16, 19, 23, 30
The Duke of Mantua Francesco Demuro * SEP 7, 11, 15, 18, 21, 23, 25, 30
The Duke of Mantua Arturo Chacón-Cruz * SEP 8, 12, 16, 19
Maddalena Kendall Gladen
Count Monterone Robert Pomakov *
Sparafucile Andrea Silvestrelli
Borsa Daniel Montenegro
Marullo Joo Won Kang
A Page Laura Krumm *
Countess Ceprano Laura Krumm *
Giovanna Renée Rapier *
Count Ceprano Ryan Kuster
An Usher Jere Torkelsen

Production Credits

Conductor Nicola Luisotti SEP 7, 8, 11, 12, 15, 19, 18, 19, 21, 23
Conductor Giuseppe Finzi SEP 25, 30
Director Harry Silverstein
Set Designer Michael Yeargan
Costume Designer Constance Hoffman
Lighting Designer Christopher Maravich
Chorus Director Ian Robertson
Choreographer Lawrence Pech

* San Francisco Opera Debut



Scene 1 – The Duke of Mantua surveys his court to choose a woman with whom to pass the night and selects the Countess Ceprano. She is flattered but nervous; her husband is present. This leads to an impasse. Marullo enters with news for his fellow courtiers that Rigoletto, the jester, has a mistress in town. The Duke then discusses his dilemma with Rigoletto, who suggests the following alternatives for Ceprano: prison, exile, or beheading. Ceprano and the courtiers are outraged and swear vengeance on Rigoletto. Monterone, an old nobleman, comes to denounce the Duke and his dissolute court. With the Duke’s consent, Rigoletto mocks the old man and his dishonored daughter. Monterone curses both Rigoletto and the Duke for laughing at a father’s grief. Rigoletto suddenly fears for the safety of his own daughter, whom he has kept carefully hidden from the court.
Scene 2 – Later that evening, Rigoletto is accosted by Sparafucile, who offers his services as a killer. Rigoletto spurns his offer and then reflects on their encounter. He sees Sparafucile as his alter ego: one kills with a sword, the other with words. Monterone’s curse continues to haunt him.
Scene 3 – Rigoletto returns home and greets his daughter, Gilda, declaring that she means the world to him. She reciprocates his feelings but questions why he has kept her concealed. He fears the courtiers and warns the nurse to guard Gilda carefully. Hearing a noise in the street, he goes out to investigate. The Duke, disguised as a student, enters and is astonished to discover the girl he has seen in church is Rigoletto’s daughter. He and Gilda declare their love. Then, fearing Rigoletto’s return, he leaves. Left alone, Gilda rhapsodizes on the “student’s” false name, Gaultier Maldè, while outside the courtiers gather to kidnap the woman they believe to be Rigoletto’s mistress. To exact their revenge on the jester, they will present the girl to the Duke. Rigoletto returns to find the courtiers near his house, but they fool him into thinking they have come to abduct the Countess Ceprano, who lives next door. Too late, Rigoletto discovers the trick.

The Duke, unaware of what has occurred, laments the fact that when he returned to Gilda’s house he found it deserted. The courtiers describe how they kidnapped Rigoletto’s mistress, and the Duke leaves to find her. When Rigoletto enters, a remark from the page alerts him to Gilda’s whereabouts. He rages at his tormentors but is soon reduced to begging them for pity. When Gilda bursts onto the scene, Rigoletto orders the courtiers to leave him alone with his daughter. She explains how she met the Duke, whom she had taken to be a student, at church. Rigoletto comforts her. Monterone, on the way to his beheading, laments that no one has yet struck down his daughter’s seducer. Rigoletto promises to do so. Gilda begs mercy for the Duke.

Rigoletto has brought Gilda to Sparafucile’s inn to show her the real nature of the man she loves. The Duke, once again incognito, flirts with Sparafucile’s sister, Maddalena. Gilda laments his faithlessness, but still continues to love him. Rigoletto sends her home and hires Sparafucile to kill the Duke. Maddalena urges her brother to spare him, and he agrees, provided another victim can be found as a substitute so that he can keep his pact with Rigoletto. Gilda, unable to follow her father’s orders, returns and presents herself as the victim after overhearing the conversation. Rigoletto returns to collect his victim and is given a body. Hearing the Duke’s voice in the distance, he quickly uncovers the wraps and finds the dying Gilda. Monterone’s curse has been fulfilled.

Rethinking the Elements of Melodrama

Thomas May

Master of the theater that he was, Verdi liked to recall a childhood incident in which real life seemed to trump the most hair-raising effects imagined for the stage.

At the local church in his native village of Roncole, young Verdi found his attention naturally drawn to the music he heard during worship services. One day, while serving as an altar boy, he became so distracted from his duties that the priest celebrating Mass kicked him. The boy went tumbling down the steps of the altar and, humiliated by this abuse, at once muttered a curse that the priest be struck down by lightning. The vindictive wish became reality eight years later when the offending cleric was instantly killed by a thunderbolt.
As an illustration of the apparent effectiveness of a curse—all the more alarming for being unforeseen—this episode might have found itself right at home in Verdi’s operatic universe. The device of the curse (along with its corollary, revenge) is, after all, as commonplace in nineteenth-century opera as the elaborate car chases meant to set the pulse pumping in blockbuster action films. Curses in one form or another figure prominently throughout Verdi’s operas. Think of  the early breakthrough work Nabucco (which actually dramatizes a moment of divine retribution in the form of a lightning bolt), Macbeth, with its collective imprecation against Duncan’s murderer, the gypsy curse of Il Trovatore, or Simon Boccanegra’s thrilling Council Chamber finale.

The Jester by George Henry Hall (1825-1913)
In some cases, curses even function as major characters. The dying Marquis’s curse against his daughter Leonora becomes a concrete emblem of the abstract force contained in the title of La forza del destino. And Verdi’s two operatic settings of plays by Victor Hugo rely on a call for vengeance whose mood Verdi establishes in riveting musical terms: the fatal oath that the old man Silva compels his rival to swear in Ernani (essentially a curse) and the maledizione after which Verdi even considered naming his seventeenth opera, which premiered 161 years ago as Rigoletto.
Not by coincidence, both of these Hugo-based operas marked major turning points in Verdi’s evolution as an artist. The plays on which they were based served as vehicles for the groundbreaking Romanticism of Hugo and his followers, also providing dramatic templates for leading composers during this period of aesthetic transition. An operatic version of Hernani appeared as early as 1834, and Bellini had seriously thought about setting it as well. Donizetti’s 1833 opera Lucrezia Borgia represents an important step in its composer’s development and is moreover based on a play originally conceived by Hugo as forming a kind of diptych together with Le roi s’amuse. Both plays (and operas) center on the relationship between a parent and a child, culminating in the death of the latter unwittingly caused by the former’s desire for vengeance. Lucrèce Borgia, Hugo explained, shows an instance of “maternity purifying moral deformity,” while with the hapless hunchbacked jester we observe “paternity sanctifying physical deformity.”
It’s not difficult to imagine the deep impression Donizetti’s opera must have left on the young Verdi, who was a student in Milan when Lucrezia Borgia premiered. By 1850 Verdi had settled on Hugo’s companion play as an operatic subject. “Oh, Le roi s’amuse is the greatest subject and perhaps the greatest drama of modern times,” he wrote. “Triboulet [Hugo’s name for the jester] is a creation worthy of Shakespeare!! Just like Ernani it’s a subject that cannot fail.”
And indeed it did not. Both of these Hugo-inspired operas scored enormous successes with the public from the start. Rigoletto in particular has long enjoyed a special status in the composer’s canon, since it is generally regarded as Verdi’s first achievement of his mature mastery.
While the audience’s first response was overwhelmingly enthusiastic, Verdi expert Julian Budden points out that the critics were all over the map, describing the new opera by turns as confusingly experimental and as an archaic throwback to the era of Mozart (shades of Don Giovanni are particularly evident). These various assessments only underlined the essentially paradoxical nature of Verdi’s creation. Opening with a scene in the light-hearted idiom of opera buffa, Rigoletto uses comic elements not for “relief” but to engender irony and thus intensify one of the bleakest, most relentlessly tragic visions in any of the composer’s operas. The innovation achieved by Rigoletto, observes Budden, is not a matter of “making a clean break with the past. The elements are in themselves mostly traditional, but they are fused together in a new and exciting way”—as in the dissolution of clear markers between formally separated vocal numbers (arias, duets, etc.) and plot-advancing recitatives, or the absence of grand ensembles for each act’s finale.

Giuseppe Gipali (the Duke of Mantua) and Kimwana Doner (Countess Ceprano) in 2006
Photo by Terrence McCarthy
The composer’s treatment of the curse might similarly be seen as a signature of the opera’s innovative rethinking of tradition. By itself, the curse that Monterone invokes is thoroughly conventional in spirit. Opera historian Gilles de Van homes in on the formula for the curse as Verdi inherited it from contemporary operatic convention. Because the curse “assumes, implicitly or explicitly, the agency of God, the judge par excellence, it is almost always pronounced by paternal figures whose actual situation as father…confers the right to invoke divine aid.” At the same time, the curse “often takes on a solemn, public character and gives rise to majestic scenes.”
In contrast to this almost ritualistically public moment, one of the most innovative scenes of Rigoletto involves the jester’s soul-baring monologue to the courtiers tormenting him while, ever the performer, he attempts to suit his pitch to the audience, moving from simulated indifference to wrath to appeals for pity. And it is precisely at this point that Rigoletto’s disgraced situation has come to resemble that of the outraged Monterone, powerless to protect his daughter from the Duke’s predations. Meanwhile, the opera’s other passages of greatest emotional intensity unfold within the private sphere, often as secret or “overheard” exchanges between characters.
As many a commentator has remarked, the curse itself is actually superfluous in the sense that the entire mechanism for the tragedy is already independently in place. No “supernatural” explanation is needed for the Duke of Mantua’s hedonistic behavior, which adds Gilda to his list of victims, or for Rigoletto’s bitter response and consequent plotting for revenge. The tragic outcome that seems to “fulfill” the curse results from the choices each of the principals makes in accordance with their personalities, while the Duke himself gets off unscathed.

Verdi, however, uses the curse not as a hackneyed plot device but to focus on the psychological effect it has on the jester. Its implications ripple across the entire opera from the moment Monterone pronounces the curse: a refrain that sheds new light on Rigoletto each time it recurs. In fact the first music we hear, dominating the Prelude, is the darkly insistent dotted-rhythm monotone of the motif that will be associated with the curse. Yet, as Budden notes, this musical signature stands not so much for the curse per se as for Rigoletto’s recollection of it immediately afterward. Verdi’s brilliantly effective choice as a musical dramatist is to play up the character’s perception of its power and significance. “The entire story is in that curse,” wrote the composer, but what makes his opera so riveting is the way in which the curse is internalized and interpreted.
The curse, in other words, becomes a pithy symbol for Rigoletto—for what Verdi considered the opera’s unique tinta or color. Through the curse he centers our attention on the essential dualism underpinning this paradoxical work. It is as an outraged father that Monterone is driven to issue his call for justice: initially he has come to accuse the Duke of defiling his daughter. In his capacity as court jester, Rigoletto mocks and goads the old count, who then includes the jester in his curse against the Duke. But an instant shock of recognition grips Rigoletto, for his one secret solace is his own daughter, Gilda. Precisely this contradictory aspect, which defines Rigoletto’s personality, fascinated Verdi: “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.”
In Hugo’s play Triboulet displays an even viler demeanor than that of the operatic jester, pointing up the dramatically incongruous aspect of “the king’s buffoon” as simultaneously being a father who loves too much. “His greatest fear is that [his daughter] may fall into evil, since being evil himself he knows what suffering it causes,” wrote Hugo. “He has trained his king in vice but has brought up his daughter in virtue….”
From Verdi’s point of view, what was especially revelatory in Hugo’s controversial dramaturgy was its seemingly contradictory mixture of the grotesque and the lofty, cynicism and sincerity. It’s difficult today to appreciate just how revolutionary this fusion was. A fundamental impetus for the new Romantic movement, this mixture of the high and low was significantly inspired by the fresh enthusiasm for Shakespeare that had only begun to spread in France and Italy. Both the promiscuous mixture of styles and the psychologically penetrating richness of Shakespeare’s plays provided Verdi with a model for his own innovative thinking with regard to the conventions of Italian opera. His version of Macbeth was of course not the first operatic adaptation of the Bard, but it did mark, as Budden observes, “the first Italian opera which attempts to reflect the spirit of Shakespeare.” Yet the playwright’s works were still such a novelty in Italy that Verdi had not even seen a production of Macbeth by the time his opera was staged in 1847. 
Verdi associated Hugo’s misfortunate jester and the curse that haunts him with an audaciously Shakespearean conflation of opposites—and thus with the sort of topic from which he could extract maximal potential for music drama. Even more, he found ways in Rigoletto to use his orchestra to provide the unspoken, “obscene” narrative so essential here. As the jester delivers his monologue to the courtiers, observes author Vincent Godefroy, “while he sings and moves us to pity, the orchestra is commenting on his daughter’s experience behind the locked door….concentrate on the orchestra and you will hear the rape of Gilda.”

Baritone Lawrence Tibbett sang the title role of Rigoletto in five San Francisco Opera seasons
The opera’s paradoxes ultimately pivot around the curse, making the agent of evil also its victim but also turning Rigoletto into a doppelgänger for Monterone, much as he recognizes his disturbing kinship with the assassin Sparafucile: He thinks the curse has already worked its full effect on him when Gilda is disgraced and in turn sets about his own plan of revenge against the Duke. The curse by its nature is also immune to the plea for pietà voiced by Gilda. Mercy is the curse’s opposite, and it is her untarnished love for the Duke—even against the evidence of his behavior in the final act—that leads her willingly to her own destruction. Gilda has been sheltered from the world by her father, but her emergence from innocence into experience is not a “fall.” Verdi’s music in the final duet emphasizes how her loving act of independence offers a positive counterpart to Rigoletto’s vision of the world as a mirror of his deformity, a merciless reality whose inherently malignant pattern has only been reinforced by Monterone’s curse.
What Gilles de Van terms “the grammar of melodrama”—the mechanisms of cursing and the longing for revenge—becomes, in Verdi’s hands, the engine for an opera whose swiftly paced momentum anticipates the epiphanies enabled by cinematic narrative. The more you peel back in the topsy-turvy world of Rigoletto, the more clearly you see how Verdi has refashioned or even overturned stereotypes. The storm sequence in the final act is not merely atmospheric but accelerates the plot, while the comic spirit that characterizes the Duke as a pleasure-loving libertine gains extraordinary dramatic impact from the contexts in which Verdi situates it. Rigoletto’s most-famous tune, “La donna è mobile,” as seductive as the Duke himself, is deceptively self-standing but in fact begins with a false start and never quite ends: Its final recurrence elicits a terrifying frisson from Rigoletto similar to that caused by Monterone and his curse. This time, though, the jester’s sudden reversal from gloating to horror is complete.
--Thomas May writes frequently for San Francisco Opera. He is the author of Decoding Wagner and The John Adams Reader.

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Anatomy of an Opera: Rigoletto

Michael Yeargan’s Sets Inspired by Giorgio de Chirico

The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street, 1914, by Giorgio de Chirico
Bridgeman Art Library

Born in Greece in 1888, Giorgio de Chirico was an Italian artist who, in his early twenties, was influenced by Symbolist painter Arnold Böcklin and began to produce a series of dream-like cityscapes drawn from actual places where de Chirico had lived. These were soon shown in Paris to wide acclaim by artists like Pablo Picasso, and caused de Chirico to found the Metaphysical movement, characterized by imaginative spaces with what historian Matthew Gale identifies as “illusionistic one-point perspective.”


Portrait of Giorgio de Chirico by Irving Penn, 1944
Art critic Robert Hughes describes de Chirico’s city as, “one of the capitals of the modernist imagination. It is a fantasy town, a state of mind, signifying alienation, dreaming and loss . . . . The ‘illusionist’ painters among them, Dali, Ernst, Tanguy, and Magritte all came out of early de Chirico, and in the 1920s George Grosz and other German painters used de Chirican motifs to express their vision of an estranged urban world.”

Set model by Michael Yeargan
Photo by Terrence McCarthy
De Chirico’s juxtaposition of the ordinary and the fantastic suited set designer Michael Yeargan’s concept of the piece, so he used the artist’s odd perspectives as a basis for his set design. He states: “In the most simplistic terms, Rigoletto is about a father's curse that fulfills itself. De Chirico’s paintings have a surreal quality that suggests a world of impending doom— that unsettling, airless feeling one gets before a huge storm is about to unleash itself. So when this production was first conceived, we unapologetically used elements from those paintings to satisfy the specific needs of the libretto, while at the same time preserving that feeling of an impending storm—when the father's curse is fulfilled."

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Past San Francisco Opera Rigoletto Casts

A look back at some of our past Rigoletto casts. For complete listings, visit our online performance archive.

Backstage in 1936 (L to R): Gaetano Merola, Company founder; Lawrence Tibbett, Rigoletto; Armando Agnini, stage director and designer; Josephine Tumminia, Gilda; Gennaro Papi, conductor; Charles Kullman, the Duke of Mantua
Photo by Morton Photographs

Jan Peerce and Lily Pons (pictured here in 1941) starred opposite one another as the Duke of Mantua and Gilda respectively in eight San Francisco Opera seasons
Photo by Morton Photographs

(L to R) Giuseppe Zampieri (Duke of Mantua), Mary Costa (Gilda), and conductor Silvio Varviso take a bow in 1961
Photo by Carolyn Mason Jones

Alfredo Krauss as the Duke of Mantua and Reri Grist as Gilda in 1966
Photo by Cecil Thompson

Sherrill Milnes starred in the title role of 1973's Rigoletto
Photo by Kori Lockhart

Ingvar Wixell as the jest for the court of Mantua in 1984
Photo by Ron Scherl

Alain Fondary (Rigoletto) and Ruth Ann Swenson (Gilda) in the last scene of 1990's Rigoletto
Photo by Marty Sohl

Kristinn Sigmundsson (Sparafucile) and Katherine Rohrer (Maddalena) in 2006
Photo by Terrence McCarthy

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Ahead of Its Time

Julian Budden

“A revolutionary opera”—that is how Verdi would describe Rigoletto in the years to come after its premiere. Audiences throughout the Italian Peninsula had a set of expectations that no composer could afford to disregard. Yet within these limits, Verdi’s seventeenth opera did indeed blaze a number of fresh trails, thereby acquiring a stamp of modernity that remained to impress listeners even in the years preceding the Verdi renaissance in the 1920s, when the composer’s reputation was at a low ebb and only Otello, Falstaff, and the Requiem were though worthy of serious attention.  

The subject of Victor Hugo’s play first occurred to Verdi in 1849, the year in which he set up as a man of property, freed from the theatrical rat race and able to write merely when he felt inclined to do so. He proposed it to Vincenzo Flauto, impresario of the Teatro San Carlo, Naples, as a possible successor to Luisa Miller, already scheduled for the current autumn season—“a fine drama with marvelous situations” was how he put it. His suggestion was duly passed on to Salvatore Cammarano, the theater’s resident poet who, however, had his doubts (“I’ve read Le Roi s’amuse again. . . . but what about the censorship?”). In such matters Cammarano was nothing if not a realist. As one who had removed the religious and political stings from Voltaire’s Alzire and Schiller’s Kabale und Liebe for Verdi’s benefit [Luisa Miller], he realized that Hugo’s piece was far more dangerous than either.
After a stormy reception at its first night in 1832, Hugo’s play had been suppressed by the government on the grounds of immorality. In a preface to the printed edition, the poet rebutted the charge at length. His argument may be summarized as follows: Triboulet, court jester to King François I of France, has a divided nature. As a hunchback, he is bitterly resentful of all who are not similarly deformed; his constant aim, therefore, is to set his fellow men against one another. Triboulet urges his royal master to every kind of vice so that, in Hugo’s words, “the king is nothing but an all-powerful puppet who destroys the lives of all those among whom his jester sets him.” But there is another side to Triboulet; he has a daughter, the one being in the world whom he loves, and whom he tries to bring up in virtue and innocence. One day he mocks the nobleman, Saint-Vallier, whose daughter, Diane de Poitiers, the king had seduced. The old man raises his arms and curses the mocker, and the curse falls on Triboulet the father, not the jester. What could be more moral than that?
It is an ingenious defense, but it overlooks an important fact. Saint-Vallier curses both Triboulet and the king, but the king goes scot-free. At any rate, it is nonsense to describe François I, one of the most powerful monarchs in Europe, as a puppet. The sharp intelligence that gleams from Jean Clouet’s famous portrait is enough to give such a notion the lie. The play, however, shows him behaving outrageously and irresponsibly. That such a portrait of royalty should be permitted in conservative Napes, ruled by a Bourbon monarch, especially in the years following the defeat of the 1848 uprising, was unthinkable. Even in Venice, under the comparatively tolerant regime of the Austrians in 1844, royal dignity was jealously guarded. In Verdi’s Ernani, another Hugo subject that had its premiere that year at the Teatro La Fenice, the character of Don Carlo [Charles V], King of Spain, had to be softened in respect of the original play. All suggestions of profligacy were removed from his wooing of Donna Elvira; nor was he allowed to hide in a cupboard! Such changes in no way damaged the opera; indeed they may even be said to have improved it, giving a certain consistency to the character of the monarch that is lacking in the verse drama. But, as Verdi was later to point out, the royal seducer of Le Roi s’amuse must remain an out-and-out libertine, otherwise the plot makes no sense.
Anyway, it was at Venice that he decided to stage his opera once the Neapolitan contract had fallen through, with Piave, not Cammarano, as his collaborator, to whom he waxed ever more enthusiastic. “It’s a subject which, if the police would permit it, would be one of the greatest creations of modern theater. Who knows? They permitted Ernani; the might permit this too, and here there wouldn’t be wouldn’t be any conspiracies.” And later, “Oh, Le Roi s’amuse is the greatest subject, perhaps even the greatest drama of modern times. Triboulet is a creation worthy of Shakespeare!”—Verdi could bestow no higher praise.
What were the qualities that attracted Verdi so strongly to the play? First of all, surely, the “divided nature” of the protagonist. Up to then his leading characters had been relatively monochromatic, actuated by similar impulses throughout. Triboulet gave him the opportunity of filling out a personality in all its human contradictions. Then, too, the play is a drama of paternity, a relationship which never failed to evoke a deep response from a man who had lost both his children in their infancy; hence his long-held but ultimately unrealized ambition to write a Re Lear. Lastly, there was his desire, expressed earlier on, to “unite the comic with the terrible in Shakespeare’s manner.” The subject of a court jester would allow him to do precisely that.
But it was not all plain sailing. Piave, resident librettist and stage director at the Venice Teatro La Fenice, evidently received assurances by word of mouth (though it is not clear from whom) that the subject would meet with no objection. Accordingly, he set to work on the scenario of what Verdi insisted should be called La maledizione di Vallier or, for short, La Maledizione. This he sent off to Carlo Mazzari, the theater’s president, who was less optimistic as to the outcome. Piave, however, stood firm, reiterating Hugo’s arguments regarding the “morality” of the play. Verdi followed up this defense with a note to the effect that Mazzari’s doubts caused him considerable embarrassment; for, through he could not claim to have begun setting music to a libretto yet unwritten, he had already pondered the subject deeply and found the appropriate “color” (tinta—a favorite word of his in this connection) for the music; therefore, the hardest part of his task had already been accomplished. If the subject were refused, he would be unable to compose another opera in time for the scheduled date.
The text of La Maledizione was duly dispatched to the Venetian authorities; and the prospect appeared sufficiently favorable for Verdi to begin the composition. Then barely three weeks before the opening of the opera season, the blow fell. A decree from the military governor forbade the subject absolutely and “regretted that the poet Piave and the celebrated Maestro Verdi have not been able to choose some other field in which to exhibit their talents than one of such repellent immorality and obscene triviality as is the plot of the libretto entitled La Maledizione.” It was not to be resubmitted in any form whatsoever.
But Piave did not give up hope. He re-worked the text, preserving his original meters but changing the king into a subordinate nobleman, who would take on the opera’s title. It is in Il Duca di Vendôme that we first encounter the names Rigoletto, Gilda, Maddalena, and Giovanna. The Duke himself is single, so there is no question of adultery; moreover, he declares to his courtiers (who are understandably astonished) that he intends to give up his life of philandering for Gilda’s sake. He is not enticed to Sparafucile’s inn, but drops in merely to seek shelter from the coming storm. There is no sack for Gilda’s body and no hump on Rigoletto’s back.
Surprisingly, in view of the earlier ban, the police gave their approval. It was Verdi who objected to the elimination of Hugo’s most daring strokes, and above all to the decision not to make Rigoletto a hunchback. “I find it very fine,” he wrote, “to represent this character, outwardly deformed and ridiculous, inwardly impassioned and full of love. I chose the subject precisely for all these qualities and these original features, and if they’re removed I can no longer write the music. If you tell me that the notes will fit this drama just as well, I can only reply that I don’t understand such reasoning, and I tell you frankly that, good or bad as my notes may be, I don’t write them at random; I always manage to give them a character.”
Nevertheless, the chief hurdle had been surmounted. The bones of Hugo’s drama were still discernible beneath of the surface trappings; and it was a short step to the definitive version in which­—with a further alteration of names and locale—the original situations were restored. A cryptic remark of Piave’s indicates the identity of the Duke of Mantua during the period chosen. (“Everyone knows who was reigning in Mantua at that time.”) It was that notorious roué, Vincenzo Gonzaga, patron of Rubens and Monteverdi. An appropriate choice, therefore; but it was prudent not to have him mentioned by name.
The premiere took place on March 11, 1851 and was an instant success, of which the somewhat cautious reviews in the press give very little idea. So, the opera had no difficulty in circulating. But, over the next decade, few audiences south of Lombardy-Venetia were allowed to hear the opera as Verdi and Piave had written it. Indeed, the various adaptations that prevailed make Il Duca di Vendôme seem a model of fidelity to Victor Hugo. In Viscardello, the Roman version, the Duke of Nottingham may have a roving eye, but, as he tells us in the second version of his ballata, his conduct is always irreproachable. In the last act he merely pretends to flirt with Maddalena, as is clear from the indications “ironico . . . ridendo . . . con caricatura.” Nor does he behave arrogantly towards Sparafucile; instead, like the perfect English gentleman that he is, he converses with him and his sister about the weather:
            Duke: And then . . . Boston is far away . . . A storm is threatening.
            Sparafucile: Indeed.
            Maddalena: It looks like it’s clearing up.
            Duke: I don’t think so.
(It is, of course, Boston, Lincolnshire, but might just as well be Massachusetts . . . )
In Clara di Perth, written for Naples by Leone Emanuele Bardare, who would later complete Cammarano’s libretto for Il Trovatore, the Duke of Rothesay (the name taken from Walter Scott’s The Fair Maid of Perth) is even more virtuous. In the Act Three quartet, far from chatting up Maddalena on his own account, he is trying to persuade her to look kindly on an absent suitor. It is not his fault if Clara and her father, looking on from a distance, misunderstand the situation. In both versions, the heroine is saved from death, leaving the jester to exclaim, “You live? Oh, merciful heaven!” Was the mode of the concluding bars changed from minor to major? If so, one can sympathize with Verdi’s observation that when certain theaters perform his works they ought to print under the title “Words and music by” . . . and fill in the name of the censor. “How would you like it,” he wrote to his friend, the sculptor Vincenzo Luccardi, “if someone tied a black ribbon around the nose of one of your statues?”
Fortunately, the unification of Italy put an end to censorship, thereby allowing Rigoletto to make its full effect. With Verdi, new and unusual situations never failed to provide new musical solutions. To convey the full range of the jester’s character, he has recourse to a recitative (“Pari siamo”) which has all the importance of an aria, while encompassing a far wider variety of mood. Rigoletto’s own formal solo (“Cortigiani, vil razza dannata”), the opera’s centerpiece, is in one movement only, articulated in three sections. In the first, he inveighs passionately against the courtiers who have abducted his daughter with his own unwitting connivance; in the second, he pleads with one of them; in the last, he throws himself on their mercy; and it is just at this moment of abject humiliation that the music carries him to heights of nobility that make us forget his deformity, both moral and physical.
Certain of the opera’s innovations are foreshadowed elsewhere. The duettino between Rigoletto and Sparafucile, during which neither sings together, has a precedent in that of the two spies in Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia (Hugo again, with another unappealing protagonist); but the strange, phosphorescent scoring gives it a sinister quality all its own. The use of a wordless chorus to portray the moaning of the wind can be found in Auber’s comic opera Haydée, but merely as background to a lighthearted refrain. Where Rigoletto most notably breaks fresh ground is in its treatment of time. Occurrences of the “expanded moment,” so common in Italian opera of the time during which the action freezes just where one expects it to move forward, are here reduced to two only: the general dismay (brief enough) following Monterone’s curse, and the Duke’s cabaletta (“Posente amor mi chiama”) with its conventional repeat. No model exists for the design of Act Three, in which to drama never halts for a moment. Even during the famous quartet (“Bella figlia dell’amore”) we are aware of the passing of time. Can we say the same of similar ensembles: “Mir ist so wunderbar” (Fidelio), “A te, o cara” (I Puritani), or even “Selig, wie die Sonne” (Die Meistersinger)? Most certainly not. In Italian opera of the past, storms have been either preludes (as in I Puritani, Act Three) or interludes (as in Il Barbiere di Siviglia and La Cenerentola). The storm in Rigoletto develops concurrently with the action, interspersed with “cut-away shots” of the singers, who then join with the orchestra to reinforce the climax in the terzetto, “Se pria ch’abbia il mezzo.” No Italian composer had created so powerful a fusion of tone-painting and drama. The ploy of using a song (the king’s “Souvent femme varie”) as a dramatic prop belongs, of course, to Hugo. The problem lies in giving it the same force in a context in which everything is sung. Verdi solves it by devising a popular, catchy melody (“La donna è mobile”) which stands out from the surrounding music, while never jarring with its basic idiom. Nothing is more chilling than the moment when it impinges on the ear of the avenging father.
Such, then, are some of the qualities that set Rigoletto well ahead of its time. Some years later Verdi, when asked which he considered his best opera, is said to have replied, “Speaking as an amateur, La Traviata; speaking as a professional, Rigoletto.” Intending no disparagement to the former, we can see what he means.

The late Julian Budden, internationally renowned musicologist, is the author of a landmark three-volume series, The Operas of Verdi, as well as a biography of Puccini for the Master Musicians Series by Oxford University Press. This article appeared previously in San Francisco Opera Magazine.

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"A powerful, rhythmically exciting Rigoletto."

  –San Francisco Examiner
"Handsome and moving...visually striking."

  –San Jose Mercury News
"Rigoletto offers double the pleasure!"

  –San Francisco Examiner
Nicola Luisotti "gave the proceedings a breathless urgency that was well suited to the drama."

  –San Francisco Chronicle
Željko Lučić "has a voice that barbs and caresses his audience."

  –San Jose Mercury News
Marco Vratogna "combined ferocious acting and singing."

  –San Francisco Examiner
Aleksandra Kurzak "was nothing short of remarkable."

  –San Francisco Chronicle
Albina Shagimuratova "delivered the score's coloratura flights with spotless precision and lustrous tonal beauty."

  –San Francisco Chronicle


Albina Shagimuratova thrilled San Francisco audiences with her Company debut as the Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute (2012).


Learn about the history and composition of Rigoletto with this episode of UCTV and San Diego Opera's OperaTalk!


Watch Luciano Pavarotti sing the famous tenor showpiece, "La donna è mobile" in this clip from the 1982 film directed by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle:


Watch Laura Claycomb sing the divine "Caro nome":


  • Fri 09/7/12 8:00pm

  • Sat 09/8/12 8:00pm

  • Tue 09/11/12 8:00pm

  • Wed 09/12/12 7:30pm

  • Sat 09/15/12 8:00pm *

  • Sun 09/16/12 2:00pm *

  • Tue 09/18/12 8:00pm

  • Wed 09/19/12 7:30pm *

  • Fri 09/21/12 8:00pm

  • Sun 09/23/12 2:00pm *

  • Tue 09/25/12 7:30pm

  • Sun 09/30/12 2:00pm *

*OperaVision, HD video projection screens featured in the Balcony level for this performance, is made possible by the Koret/Taube Media Suite.


Company Sponsors John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn, and Mrs. Edmund W. Littlefield, are proud to support this production. This production is made possible, in part, by Opening Weekend Grand Sponsor Diane B. Wilsey. Major support for this production also provided by the Great Interpreters of Italian Opera Fund established by Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem.

Nicola Luisotti's appearance made possible by Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem, Chairs, Amici di Nicola of Camerata. Mr. Lucic's appearance is made possible by a gift to the Great Singers Fund by Joan and David Traitel.

Cast, program, prices and schedule are subject to change.