Rigoletto Synopsis & Background


Rigoletto Synopsis


Scene 1 - A hall in the ducal palace

At a festive ball the Duke of Mantua is telling Borsa about his latest flirtation, a young woman he sees each Sunday at church. She lives in a remote street and an unknown man enters her house each night. As they admire the ladies of the court, the Duke expresses his admiration for all women and his disdain for monogamy. Count Ceprano watches the Duke pursue his wife and the hunchback jester Rigoletto mocks Ceprano.

Marullo tells the courtiers that Rigoletto has a mistress. When Rigoletto further humiliates Count Ceprano in front of the Duke, the courtiers plot their revenge on the jester. The festivities are interrupted by Count Monterone whose daughter’s honor has been taken by the Duke. After Rigoletto taunts him for trying to protest his daughter’s lost virtue, Monterone places a curse on the Duke and his jester.


Scene 2 – The end of a dark and deserted street.

With Monterone’s curse weighing on his thoughts, Rigoletto encounters the assassin Sparafucile, who offers to rid him of any rivals. The jester rejects his services. Left alone, Rigoletto compares how he and Sparafucile use their respective weapons: Rigoletto, his wit, and Sparafucile, his sword. He enters the house and is greeted by his daughter Gilda. When she asks Rigoletto about her family and mother, he insists that she has no family and laments that her mother, the only one to have ever loved him, died. As they are speaking, the disguised Duke slips in and recognizes Rigoletto.

After Rigoletto leaves, Gilda confesses her feeling of guilt to her attendant Giovanna. She wonders if she should have told her father about the man who follows her to church. Suddenly she is surprised by the Duke, disguised as a poor student, who declares his love. As she admits her feelings for him, they are interrupted by a noise outside and he leaves. Soon Rigoletto returns and encounters Marullo, Borsa, and other courtiers. They tell him that they are planning to abduct Countess Ceprano, and Rigoletto offers to join them. On the pretext that they are all masked, Marullo covers Rigoletto’s eyes and ears with a blind fold. The courtiers break into Rigoletto’s house and kidnap Gilda while he holds the ladder. Realizing what has happened, Rigoletto recalls Monterone’s curse.


A room in the ducal palace.

Upon returning to Rigoletto’s house, the Duke found that Gilda had been abducted. Courtiers enter and relate how they kidnapped Rigoletto’s “mistress” and brought her to the palace. Realizing they are referring to Gilda, he rushes off to her. Rigoletto enters and tries to maintain his composure as he searches for signs of his daughter. As he realizes that Gilda is in the next room with the Duke, he tells the courtiers that they have not abducted his mistress, but his daughter.
Gilda enters crying and Rigoletto demands the courtiers leave the room. She tells her father about the Duke’s seduction. Rigoletto decides that they will leave Mantua.


A deserted bank of the Mincio River

Rigoletto and Gilda spy on the disguised Duke who is awaiting the arrival of Maddalena, Sparafucile’s sister. The Duke begins to seduce Maddalena as Rigoletto and Gilda look on. Sending his daughter away, Rigoletto pays Sparafucile half of the fee to murder the Duke and says he will return at midnight to pay the balance and retrieve the body. As a storm approaches, Gilda returns dressed as a boy and listens from outside as Maddalena tries to convince her brother not to kill the man. Sparafucile finally yields, but only if someone comes to the tavern, supplying a replacement corpse. Gilda decides to give her life to save the Duke.

As midnight strikes, Rigoletto knocks on Sparafucile’s door. The assassin accepts the rest of the jester’s money and gives him the corpse which has been placed in a snack. Rigoletto is rejoicing over his vengeance when he hears the Duke’s voice in the distance. Opening the sack, he discovers his daughter. Asking for his blessing, Gilda dies in Rigoletto’s arms.

Rigoletto Background

Giuseppe Verdi was always in search of a fresh, original story as a subject for his operas and in discovering Victor Hugo's play Le Roi s'amuse, he thought he had found the one. As he turned his thoughts to fulfilling a commission by the Teatro La Fenice in Venice for a new opera in 1851, he wrote his frequent librettist Francesco Maria Piave, "I have in mind a subject who would be one of the greatest creations of modern theater, if only the police will allow it." The police to which he was referring were the Austrian censors (Venice was at that time under Austrian control), and it was clear that Verdi knew the risks of this controversial subject.

Le Roi s'amuse tells the story of a licentious king, Francis I, his jester Triboulet, and the jester's daughter, who has been raised hidden away from the world in order to shield her from it. The play was produced in Paris in 1832 but was banned after a single performance. The reason was immorality, but in reality, the motive may have been political. The censors interpreted parts of the play as insulting to the sitting king, Louis-Philippe. Hugo brought suit and defended his play in court but lost. Le Roi s'amuse would not be given again in Paris for 50 years (ironically, Verdi's opera was first seen in Paris as early as 1853).

Yet Verdi encouraged Piave and the management of the Fenice to seek out officials who would ensure that an opera based on the play could be given. "Le Roi s'amuse is the greatest subject and perhaps the greatest drama of modern times. Triboulet is a character worth of Shakespeare!!" The Austrian censor was somewhat less enthusiastic and in banning the subject declared his disappointment that Verdi and Piave would waste their time on such a "repugnant example of immorality and obscene triviality." 

Trying to salvage the situation, Piave, the theater management, and a sympathetic official at the censor's office suggested changes. The story was moved from France to Mantua, the King became a Duke, and Triboulet became Rigoletto. And some details, Verdi remained adamant. When it was suggested that Rigoletto should not be a hunchback, he responded, "A hunchback who sings? Why not? Will it be effective? I don't know. But I repeat if I don't know, then they who propose this change don't know either. I thought it would be beautiful to portray this extremely deformed and full of love. I chose the subject precisely because of these qualities..." Finally, a version was approved, and Verdi began to compose. 

The premiere in Venice on March 11, 1851 was a popular success and was brought successfully to other Italian cities, and within several years had been seen in London, Paris and New York. Yet, it was not without criticism in the press. A French critic wrote in the Gazette musicale de Paris that "Rigoletto is Verdi's weakest work. It lacks melody. It has hardly a chance to be kept in the repertoire."

Some in the press found fault with the subject. They perceived the story as being dark and ugly and the subject immoral (this was particularly true in the U.S., where Rigoletto took some time to gain a foothold). But much of the criticism could be blamed on a lack of understanding. With Rigoletto Verdi was trying something new; he didn't hesitate to call it revolutionary. "I conceived Rigoletto almost without arias, without finales, but as a long string of duets", the composer wrote and as a result the dramatic and musical structure of the work is different from works that preceded it. 

Typically, an Italian opera would open with a chorus and each major character introduced by a two-part aria (with a slow section followed by a fast one). Rigoletto instead opens, after a short prelude, with a dialogue between two characters (the Duke and Borsa), which is punctuated by a short solo for the Duke. There are no grand act finales and although each of the major characters has at least one solo, they are all (apart from the Duke's second act "Parmi veder le lagrime") untraditional in structure. With his unerring sense of drama, Verdi was beginning the process of leaving the "number" opera behind. In Rigoletto he was clearly making sure that story and characters were served by the music and not impeded by vocal display.

Yet despite this, Verdi created several of the most memorable operatic excerpts in the repertoire. "La donna è mobile" was immediately successful (popular legend has it that the day following the premiere it was being sung in the streets) and there is probably no more famous operatic ensemble than the third act quartet "Bella figlia dell'amore". 

Regardless of a few earlier critical naysayers, Rigoletto was and remains one of the most popular works in the repertoire. Over the last decade it was the tenth most performed opera in the world, with nearly 4,500 performances of 1,005 productions. During Sarasota Opera's 61-season history, it has been given six times, including launching our Verdi Cycle in 1989 and re-opening the renovated Sarasota Opera House in 2008.

Richard Russell is Sarasota Opera’s Executive Director