Lasting works that are so much a part of our lives and the general culture have often had the most improbable origins; it is one of music's greatest ironies.
The arduous birth of Wagner’s "The Ring" is the stuff of legends, and decades of work, sacrifice and immense debt. Berlioz' "Les Troyens" was a desperate, singular throw of the dice urged on by his correspondence with Liszt's mistress and his lifelong love of Virgil. But what about Verdi’s overwhelmingly popular "Rigoletto"? What happened there?
It started by what seemed a simple dramatic piece, evolved to an opera score adaptation deriving from Victor Hugo’s very popular play, "The King Amuses Himself," but the obvious ends there. The problem was, as would continue to be the case, Verdi’s ever complex relationship to the censors.
First you must understand that Verdi, much like Wagner, was something of a social revolutionary within his own culture. He held political office, raised money for causes, backed the nationalists in Italy's struggle for unity, and most outrageously lived with his mistress, Giuseppina Strepponi and her several children, years before marrying her.
The theme of the woman as outsider and the privileges and hypocrisy of men in particular, and society in general, finds an outlet in many of his greatest works, and perhaps most flamboyantly in "La Traviata." But before he tackled that he would take on nothing less than the monarchy and the nobles.
In "Rigoletto," the creative thrust of the work raged on and on and there is a fascinating four-way correspondence between the unyielding composer, his exhausted librettist (as update followed update), the management of the Teatro Fenice (caught in the middle between the state and the artist) and the Department of Public Order, who were horrified by the dramatization of a monarch as a libertine who ruins an innocent girl and drives her father mad.
The solution was finally found after Verdi, several times, threatened to withdraw the piece. The King would become a Duke, the setting would be 16th century Mantua and not France, the placement of a second seduction would arise out of accident and not calculation, and finally, as little as possible was to be made of the question of whether or not "anything other than abduction" had happened to Gilda.
Verdi also changed the title from "The King Amuses Himself," to "Triboletto," to "La ‘Maledizione" (The Curse, shifting class critique to superstition), "The Duke of Vendrome," and finally, "Rigoletto."
The plot we know today became the abduction of Gilda, daughter of the hump-backed and tormented court jester, and his war at court with the nobles. The music is unforgettable in ensemble, aria or duet, and of course, "La Donna e mobile" (Woman is fickle).
The Metropolitan Opera's latest production of "Rigoletto" fittingly places Verdi’s tragedy of lust, betrayal, and revenge in Las Vegas in 1960. Željko Lucic is the lead and Diana Damrau is his daughter, who falls under the spell of Piotr Beczala as the Duke.
Tune in and hear the music that announced Verdi’s mature style rising from near nonexistence to perennial classic, and conquered the world in this 200th anniversary celebration from the Metropolitan Opera. That’s Verdi’s Rigoletto, here at noon on KPAC and KTXI.
- For more information and to watch videos from the performance visit: www.metoperafamily.org