This Verdi work was a smash hit when it opened in 1851 at La Fenice Theatre. Rigoletto, who’s a court jester, seeks revenge on the Duke of Mantua (who’s Rigoletto’s master) for seducing his daughter. The daughter dies, the duke lives, and justice is most definitely not served.
Rigoletto premiered in the UK in 1853, at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden (London). It premiered in the US in 1855 at the Academy of Music in NY. In contemporary times, it’s a staple of most all opera companies and it’s also number 10 on Operbase’s tally as the world’s most-performed opera.
Scene 1: Room in palace
During a ball at his palace, the duke sings about pleasuring as many women as he can, with: “This woman or that…” He’s spotted a beauty in church and wants her, as well as wanting the Countess of Ceprano. Rigoletto is the duke’s hunchbacked jester and he mocks the husbands of the women that the duke wishes to seduce.
Rigoletto tells the duke to get rid of the extra husbands by killing them or by poison. Marullo lets the noblemen know that Rigoletto has a lover. They can’t believe it. They vow revenge on Rigoletto. The latter ridicules Count Monterone and he’s the father whose daughter the duke seduced.
Count Monteroine is placed under arrest because the duke ordered it and then the count curses both Rigoletto and the duke. This simply terrifies Rigoletto.
Scene 2: Street, containing courtyard of Rigoletto’s house
As he’s thinking about the curse, Rigoletto gets close to his house. He’s accosted by an assassin – Sparafucile – who offers up his services to Rigoletto. The latter compares their similarities by singing “We are alike!” Sparafucile uses a sword for his kills while Rigoletto uses his sharp and malicious tongue to stab with.
As Rigoletto opens the door and enters his home, he sees his daughter Gilda. They are warm to each other and sing “Daughter! My father!’ Rigoletto has concealed his daughter from the eyes of both the duke and the city’s populace. She doesn’t know where her father works. Because she can’t leave the house, she’s only gone to church and she doesn’t even know her father’s name.
The Duke’s Palace
Gilda has disappeared and the duke is concerned. He sings “She was stolen from me!” as well as “I seem to see tears.” Noblemen enter and tell him that they have Rigoletto’s mistress. The duke recognizes that it’s Gilda from their description. He rushes off to see her. He sings “Mighty love beckons me”. The courtiers are pleased by the duke’s unexplainable excitement and they jest with Rigoletto, who enters the scene singing.
Setting: Street outside of Sparafucile’s house
Inside of Sparafucile’s home, two rooms can be seen. Gilda and Rigoletto arrive at the exterior. Gilda still loves the duke. The duke is singing “Woman is fickle — (La Donna e Mobile)”. In the song he sings about the fickleness and infidelity of women. Gilda realizes, from Rigoletto, that it’s the duke inside the house. She also realizes that he’s trying to seduce Sparafucile’s sister (Maddalena). She sings “Sweet daughter of love”.
La Fenice had commissioned Verdi to write a new opera in 1850. He was already a known composer and could pick and choose his compositions and so there was always a wild field of choices for the master. He asked Piave to take a look at a play called Kean, by Alexandre Dumas but he did feel that he wanted a more energetic subject to compose for.
He then came across Hugo’s Le roi s’amuse. He said the main theme was immense and great and that the central character of it was important to theatres around the world. It was controversial and Verdi had encountered French censors previously. Hugo’s play portrayed a king of France as a cynical and immoral womanizer.
Verdi was aware of the risks from the start of the project. Piave and Verdi continued to communicate with each other over Rigoletto. The secretary for La Fenice, a friendly Guglielmo Brenna, said they’d have no problems with the censors, but he was wrong. Rigoletto was finally mounted after many trials and tribulations.
Links to more information on Rigoletto