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'Rigoletto' is one of Verdi's most popular and successful operas, and is believed to have been one of his favourites. The opera was the first of a trio of operas composed by Verdi to achieve unparalleled popularity (the others were 'Il Trovatore' and 'La Traviata'). Even someone unfamiliar with opera would recognise the tune of the Duke's aria from 'Rigoletto', 'La Donna è Mobile', even if the name were unfamiliar - it is certainly one of the best-known arias. I was lucky enough to get a ticket (admittedly seated in the gods) to get into the first night of David McVicar's 2001 production of the opera at the Royal Opera House on the 19th September. The production has been extremely well received by the opera world, and BBC2 altered their schedule to broadcast the opera live from the House on the 22nd September. HISTORY 'Rigoletto' premiered in 1851 at the now closed La Fenice opera house in Venice. The libretto was written by Francesco Maria Piave, and adapted from Victor Hugo's play 'Le Roi s'amuse'. Both Hugo's play and Verdi's opera had problems with censors. The only character in both stories that appears to have any morals is the court jester, but then he goes on to plot the assassination of his master. Inevitably this wasn't popular with the gentry of the day. Even less popular was the fact that Hugo's play is set in France, in the court of Francois I, and Verdi was forced to move the opera to the fictional court of the Duke of Mantua. THE PLOT Like many operas, the plot of 'Rigoletto' really isn't spectacularly plausible. However, few people go to the opera for the plot - it's really the music and the spectacle that form the main draw. 'Rigoletto' runs for a little over two hours, not allowing for intervals. Typically, the opera is performed with two intervals, between the three acts. - Act I The first act of 'Rigoletto' opens in the court of the Duke of Mantua (tenor), where he is hosting what is variously described as an orgy or a feast, depending on which version of the synopsis you read. The Duke watches the women at the court, and sings of the girl he met eyes with in church, before he spots the Countess Ceprano (mezzo-soprano). He dances a minuet with the Countess before disappearing with her, much to the frustration of Count Ceprano (bass). Rigoletto (baritone), the Duke's jester, mocks the Count. Marullo (baritone) rushes in to inform the courtesans of a new joke - it seems that Rigoletto is keeping a mistress, and Ceprano hits upon a wicked idea for revenge upon the jester. The feast is interrupted by the arrival of Monterone (baritone), a nobleman whose daughter has been seduced and abandoned by the Duke. Rigoletto taunts Monterone mercilessly, and the Duke has Monterone put under arrest. As Monterone is led from the court, he curses the jester for mocking a father's grief. A brief scene change moves us from the Duke's court to Rigoletto's house. As Rigoletto returns home, he can't help thinking about the curse. En route, he meets Sparafucile (bass), a hired killer. Sparafucile is aware of the woman Rigoletto keeps in his home, and offers his services to the jester, knowing that he must have rivals for the girl's affections. Rigoletto says he has no need of such services, but makes sure to remember where and when he could find Sparafucile in the future. We learn that it is not Rigoletto's mistress, but his daughter, Gilda (soprano) who lives in the house, and she rushes to his arms as soon as he enters. Gilda has been raised in the country, ignorant of her parents, and has only recently moved to Mantua. Rigoletto is extremely protective of his daughter, refusing to let her out into the city. He orders his servant, Giovanna to watch over his daugher. Meanwhile, the
Duke has been listening from the shadows outside the house. As soon as Rigoletto leaves, Gilda is wracked with guilt - she had meant to tell her father of the man she met eyes with in church. Giovanna is bribed by the Duke to let him into the courtyard, and he passionately declares his love for Gilda. She recognises him from the church, and he tells her that he is Gaultier Malde, a poor student. As the two chat, Giovanna warns them that she hears approaching footsteps. Thinking that it is Rigoletto returning, the Duke leaves. However, the footsteps belong to Marullo and the courtesans - they have come to abduct the girl, believing her to be Rigoletto's mistress. As they prepare to abduct her, Rigoletto himself returns. Marullo manages to convince him that it is the wife of Ceprano that they have come to kidnap from the palace across the street. The courtesans blindfold Rigoletto (he fails to notice because it's pitch black!), and tell him to hold the ladder by which they break into his house and emerge with Gilda. As they leave with Gilda, Rigoletto realises he has been tricked, and removes the blindfold and rushes into the empty house. He recalls Monterone's curse. - Act II In the Duke's palace. The Duke has returned from another trip to see Gilda, and is cursing whoever has stolen her from him. The courtesans rush in to tell him of their exploits the previous night, and he realises that Rigoletto's "mistress" and daughter are one and the same. The courtesans have locked Gilda in a room in the palace, and the Duke makes his way there. Rigoletto meanwhile roams the palace searching for Gilda while avoiding the courtesans' taunts. A page inadvertently reveals that the Duke is with Gilda, and Rigoletto informs them that she is his daughter. Gilda finally appears, throwing himself into her father's arms. Rigoletto orders the courtesans from the room, and she tells him of what ha
s happened to her, and of the man she now knows to be the Duke. Monterone is dragged past the pair, on his way to prison, and despairs that his curse has proved futile. Rigoletto swears that he will strike vengeance on the Duke. - Act III Sparafucile's inn. A month later, and Rigoletto has planned his revenge on the Duke. He waits with Gilda outside the inn. Sparafucile's sister, Maddalena (contralto), has lured the Duke there for the night. Gilda, who has remained in love with the Duke, is heartbroken by witnessing his infidelity. Rigoletto tells Gilda to leave Mantua for Verona, where he will join her in the morning. Once she is gone, Rigoletto agrees a price for the Duke's murder with Sparafucile. Sparafucile leads the Duke to an upper room in the inn, where he drifts off to sleep awaiting Maddalena. She has fallen for the handsome Duke, and tries to convince Sparafucile to spare his life. She suggests that Sparafucile kill Rigoletto instead, when he returns with the payment, but he refuses. However, he gives in to Maddalena's alternate plan - to kill any traveller who comes to their door, and present their body in a sack to Rigoletto instead. Gilda, hasn't left for Verona, but has been waiting outside the inn, listening to this exchange between Sparafucile and Maddalena. She decides to die herself, to spare the Duke's life, and knocks on the door. Maddalena opens the door and Sparafucile stabs her. At midnight, Rigoletto returns to claim the Duke's body, and Sparafucile urges him to throw it into the river immediately. Rigoletto gloats over the sack, but when he hears the Duke singing in the distance, he opens it to discover the dying Gilda who begs for his forgiveness. She dies, and Rigoletto recalls once again the curse of Monterone before falling over her body. THE OPERA Particularly notable about the opera is that almost all of the roles, with the exception of Rigolett
o himself, are very slight. In fact, apart from the Duke of Mantua, most other parts are only given a few minutes of libretto to sing, if that! However, despite the small roles of the other cast members, opera singers are often enthusiastic about taking part in the opera because of the power and strength of Verdi's music. The character of Monterone, for example, appears on stage for less than three minutes, but is often described as one of the most rewarding parts in all Italian opera. Having said that, the opera was not well received following its early performances. In 1853, a reviewer from 'L'Italia musicale' who saw the opera in Milan wrote that "there [were] fundamental faults in this opera." It is true that Verdi's style was radically different from that of the time - reviewers frequently criticised 'Rigoletto' for its breaks from traditions - but his style of using music for dramatic function was to come to dominate Italian opera. For example, Rigoletto's darker side is indicated with musical elements when he taunts Monterone in the first act - the orchestra plays in unison with derisive trills punctuating the theme. Verdi was unrepentant, responding to his critics that "it's too late now for me to turn back," and continued producing the beautiful operatic scores we hear today. As I mention above, the Duke's aria from the third act - 'La Donna è Mobile' - is one of the best known of all arias. Legend has it that when the opera was being rehearsed in La Fenice, Verdi withheld the aria until the last possible night of rehearsal, for fear that it would become known throughout Venice before the first night. THE 2001 PRODUCTION I attended the first performance of the new 2001 London production of the opera, funded by the Jean Sainsbury Royal Opera House Fund, the Benefactors' Circle and the Friends of Covent Garden. The production was directed by David McVic
ar, who has opted for a fairly minimal set design, and has concentrated on suggesting the characters' different social classes. When the curtain raised on the first act, it revealed a relatively barren set. The set was dominated by a huge, angled slate-grey sheet, the height of the stage, with a doorway a few feet from the ground leading onto a set of stairs down to the stage itself. The area around the sheet was very dark, focusing the audience's attention on that area of the stage. The only prop on the stage at the beginning of the opera was the Duke's chair. Once the opening overture has finished, screams accompany the actors as they rush on stage for the Duke of Mantua's feast, interpreted by McVicar as a depraved orgy. Women bare their breasts, and there's a real atmosphere of hedonism and licentiousness, with couples . The costumes of the main characters are exuberant bright colours - reds and greens - with the Duke himself wearing a golden robe. When Rigoletto appears, he is clad in a costume made entirely from black leather, with a red jester's hat, held on with strips of black PVC. He walks on two sticks, as is conventional for the part, which he jabs phallically in the direction of any women he should encounter. Essentially, despite the relatively Spartan set design, we are left with an impression of wealth and hedonism... an impression which jars all too obviously with the set of the second scene of Act One, which takes place at Rigoletto's house. Rigoletto's house is revealed when the stage rotates, and has been constructed at the back of the huge slate sheet. It consists of a shabby hovel, erected from corrugated iron, mesh fences and wooden beams. Rigoletto's daughter is dressed in a simple, plain white ankle-length dress. McVicar's presentation makes it clear why Rigoletto so wants to shield his daughter from the perversions of the Duke's court. Later in the act,
when the courtesans arrive to kidnap Gilda, they all wear skull masks, perhaps foreshadowing the end of the opera. Act Two takes place back at the court of the Duke of Mantua, and Act Three takes place at Sparafucile's Inn - represented by a redressed version of Rigoletto's house. The presentation is interesting because with the simple set, which can change from an extravagant court to seedy back streets simply by its rotation. In many ways, this reflects Verdi's intentions with the opera - the concept of how close these two different locations actually are to each other, and the laying bare of the seedy underbelly that lies beneath polite society. Although the Royal Opera House is well known for the exuberance and glamour of its presentations, the unusually plain and unadorned sets of McVicar's production of Rigoletto worked extremely well. THE 2001 PERFORMERS The big names of the 2001 production at the Royal Opera House were Marcelo Alvarez, who plays the Duke of Mantua, and Paolo Gavanelli, who plays Rigoletto himself. Both gave absolutely outstanding performances, and Alvarez in particular shone, delivering his arias with real emotion and power. Christine Schafer's Gilda was, I felt, a little uneven in places, but still delivered her arias very well. Her performance, interestingly, was better in the televised performance a few nights later, suggesting that she perhaps hadn't had as long to rehearse as the other performers. In general, the perfomance was outstandingly good, and the Royal Opera House Orchestra and Chorus were as superb as ever. CONCLUSIONS 'Rigoletto' is one of the most popular Italian operas, and it was interesting to see a new production of it. McVicar's presentation shows an odd return to the simplicity of older productions. Earlier presentations of the opera would have been limited to minimal set changes due to the mechanics req
uired to redress the stage rapidly, whereas here McVicar uses modern mechanic technique to radically alter the presentation of the set with only minimal changes to it. This is a form of presentation that hints at the underlying messages of the opera - the façade of beauty. Rigoletto himself is ugly, yet at heart is a good man, just as the Duke is a handsome figure, but selfish and uncaring. Similarly, the court appears refined and stylish, but it is only a stone's throw from the filthy, crime-filled streets of the city. This production is likely to be added to the regular programme at the Royal Opera House for the next few years - it received rave reviews from critics, and was well received by the public. Not only is the music beautiful and memorable, but the presentation itself is first-rate.