The subject of Victor Hugo’s play Le Roi s’amuse (literally, The King Amuses Himself) 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 in 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. That such a critical portrait of royalty should be permitted in conservative Naples, 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.
Anyway, it was at Venice that Verdi decided to stage his opera once the Neapolitan contract had fallen through, with Francesco Maria 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; they might permit this too, and here there wouldn’t be any conspiracies.”
What were the qualities that attracted Verdi so strongly to Le Roi s’amuse? 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. The court jester 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 Venice’s 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 (The Curse).
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.” 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 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 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.
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. 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 (“Possente amor mi chiama”) with its conventional repeat. No model exists for the design of Act Three, in which the 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). The storm in Rigoletto develops concurrently with the action, interspersed with “cutaway 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.