Great moments in opera: Rigoletto

January 21, 2010

Rigoletto is another of Verdi’s operas that is new to me.  I had known the famous tenor aria “La donna è mobile” (listen), but nothing else — not even the basic story.  This week I watched a Metropolitan Opera production from 1977 starring Placido Domingo, Ileana Cotrubas, and, in the title role, Cornell MacNeil.

Rigoletto is a hunch-backed jester in the court of the Duke of Mantua.  He is not a good man, his physical deformity being an effective image of his moral corruption, but his character is redeemed somewhat by his love for his daughter Gilda, who is now a young woman.  The Duke is a buoyant philanderer who bears more than a passing resemblance to Don Giovanni.  Over the course of the opera we are shown how Rigoletto’s wickedness leads to the destruction of whatever happiness has been his.

I am learning more and more that Verdi took characterization seriously, and he does an excellent job portraying these complex, and mostly unlikable, people.  (The cast is really quite dark: an evil jester, a promiscuous Duke, and a hitman are the three lead male roles.)  Rigoletto is a strong central character, and the roles of the Duke and Gilda are also rounded and interesting.  The story itself is involving, with several excellent scenes, although I thought it was let down by a weak final act.  (Rigoletto’s discovery that the body in the sack is not, in fact, the Duke’s body I thought a disappointingly weak moment, at least in the production I viewed.)

I have selected two episodes to illustrate the musical glories of Rigoletto.  The first is “E il sol dell’anima” (Love is the sun), an Act I duet between the Duke and Gilda.  The Duke’s wandering eye has alighted on Gilda, and in this duet he, disguised as a student, declares his love for her.  After a few moments they hear footsteps approaching and must part.  Here is Luciano Pavarotti and Joan Sutherland:

My second selection is a quartet from Act III, “Bella figlia dell’amore” (Fairest daughter of love).  The four singers are Rigoletto, Gilda, the Duke, and Maddalena (another of the Duke’s conquests).  This is the closest I have heard any opera composer come to the high standard which Mozart set in his operas for quartets (or quintets, or sextets).  Not only is the music great, but each singer’s contribution remains in character: the Duke is (apparently) gallant, Maddalena is coy and condescending of his advances, Gilda is heart-broken, and Rigoletto is dreaming of revenge.

The best version of this quartet that I have found on YouTube, with Pavarotti singing the Duke, is unfortunately not embeddable, but it can be viewed here.  As a runner-up, here is the quartet from the Metropolitan Opera performance which I viewed.

I enjoyed Rigoletto very much, and am looking forward to hearing it again before too long.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: