This week, the Metropolitan Opera begins its new season of radio broadcasts with Verdi's Rigoletto (11:30 CT). This year is a bicentennial for Verdi (1813-1901). But Rigoletto doesn't need an anniversary to attract attention. Ever since its first performance in Venice in 1851, it's been a hit with audiences, and a standard in the opera repertory.
The opera is based on a play by Victor Hugo, which was set in the court of Francis I of France. When Verdi was turning it into an opera, he ran into opposition from the censors, because of the play's "immorality," and agreed to some alterations, including changing the French king into an Italian duke. (The Met's production gives Rigoletto a Las Vegas setting view the slideshow at right.)
The Duke, then, is the ruler of Mantua but his main interest is womanizing. (Virtually all of his onstage moments relate to women in one way or another.) His court also includes a jester, the hunchback Rigoletto, who sycophantically amuses his master. But Rigoletto has a second life, unknown to the people at court. He has a young daughter, Gilda, whom he keeps hidden away from the world especially from the Duke.
Inevitably, these two worlds will collide. One day, when Gilda is at church, the Duke follows her home, showers her with warm words and she falls deeply in love with him.
There's already enough conflict here to fuel an opera plot. But the main characters have added complexity always an attraction for Verdi, who sometimes was more interested in imperfect men and women than in opera's standard heroes and heroines.
Consider each of the characters in this triangle.
Rigoletto: On the plus side, he's a loving father, and was, we assume, a loving husband to his wife, who is now dead. Despite the odds against him, he has managed to create a life for himself, and a safe space for his beloved daughter.
But on the other side: He can be brutal and vindictive. He encourages the Duke in his libertine ways. We're used to the idea that humor is aggressive, but Rigoletto's jokes go beyond that, into gratuitous cruelty. (They're also not very funny.)
The Duke of Mantua: The good qualities of the Duke . . . well, perhaps "goodness" isn't really the word. But you can credit him with a certain charm and masculine élan. This makes him a success with the ladies even when he's in disguise, and he gets some of the opera's catchiest tunes. And if you select individual moments from the Duke's career, he can come off as an attractive rogue.
But when you put the moments together, a different picture emerges a ruler who abuses power, a selfish philanderer, and an unfaithful husband (there's a Duchess of Mantua, though we hear very little about her).
Gilda: may be the most admirable character in this triangle. She loves her father, and is remorseful about deceiving him. She also sincerely loves the Duke, and when her father challenges her about this, she shows some unexpected self-reliance.
If Gilda has a fault, it may be her innocence: not a helpful virtue in the sordid world of this opera. I won't give away the plot for those who need to know exactly how it ends up, you can read about it here.
But here's a clue. When the original play was adapted into operatic form, all the characters received new names: the French Triboulet became the Italian Rigoletto, meaning, roughly, "funny." The original name of the daughter was Blanche French for "white" no doubt emphasizing purity. But in the opera, she becomes "Gilda" one meaning of which is "sacrifice."