Go inside this production of Rigoletto with engaging articles, notes from the director, a complete plot synopsis, artist bios, and more.
In this program
TIME and PLACE: 16th-century Mantua
Scene 1. The Duke of Mantua boasts to a courtier, Borsa, about his most recent infatuation. A girl has enchanted the Duke, but ultimately it makes no difference to him whether he pursues one woman or another. Wishing to select one with whom to spend the evening, he surveys the court and settles upon the Countess Ceprano just as the court jester Rigoletto mocks her husband. Another courtier, Marullo, arrives with surprising news to share with his fellow courtiers: Rigoletto has a mistress. In the meantime, the Duke and Rigoletto discuss several unscrupulous methods of disposing of superfluous husbands. Realizing that he is the object of Rigoletto’s sarcasm, Count Ceprano arranges for a midnight meeting with some of the courtiers to obtain vengeance. The party is interrupted by the arrival of the nobleman Monterone, who storms in to denounce the Duke for dishonoring his daughter. He curses the Duke, and when mocked viciously by Rigoletto, Monterone turns on the jester and curses him as well.
Scene 2. Brooding over Monterone’s curse, Rigoletto returns to the secluded house where he shields his daughter, Gilda, from the licentiousness of the Duke’s court. Sparafucile, a professional assassin, confronts Rigoletto and offers to help should Rigoletto ever wish to rid himself of an enemy. Once alone, Rigoletto muses on the similarity of their professions – Rigoletto wounding others with his wit, while Sparafucile uses a knife. Rigoletto returns home and greets his daughter, Gilda, declaring that she means the world to him. She reciprocates his feelings but questions why he has kept her concealed. He fears the courtiers and warns the housekeeper, Giovanna, to guard Gilda carefully. Hearing a noise in the street, he goes out to investigate. Gilda confesses to Giovanna that she loves a young man who has followed her home every day after church. The Duke, who has been eavesdropping on the scene, steps out of hiding and declares his love, identifying himself as Gualtier Maldè, a penniless student. Hearing footsteps, he rushes off, leaving Gilda thinking lovingly of his name. The courtiers appear, ready to abduct Rigoletto’s supposed mistress. Rigoletto surprises them by returning, but Marullo convinces him that they are planning to abduct the wife of Count Ceprano, who lives nearby. Rigoletto falls into their trap and in the confused darkness he doesn’t realize that it is Gilda who has been kidnapped until she cries out to her father as she is carried off. Realizing the trick too late, Rigoletto cries, “Ah, the curse!”
The Duke, unaware of the kidnapping, laments the fact that when he returned to Gilda’s house he found it deserted. When the courtiers tell him of the abduction, he rejoices that the girl is now in the palace. Rigoletto appears, feigning nonchalance. Once it becomes clear to him that Gilda must be with the Duke, he desperately tries to reach her, but the courtiers hold him back. His fury dissolves into a bereft father’s pleading. Gilda bursts into the scene and Rigoletto orders the courtiers to leave him alone with his daughter. Gilda confesses that she loves the Duke and begs her father to forgive him. As Monterone appears on his way to prison, Rigoletto swears that they both will be avenged.
Rigoletto has brought Gilda to Sparafucile’s inn to prove the Duke’s faithlessness. As they lurk in the darkness, the Duke swaggers in. After proclaiming the fickleness of women, he charms Maddalena, Sparafucile’s sister. As the flirtation progresses, Rigoletto tries to comfort his despairing daughter. He orders her to return home, disguise herself as a boy, and meet him in Verona. After striking a bargain with Sparafucile for the Duke’s murder, he departs. Gilda, unwilling to follow her father’s orders, returns to the inn and overhears Maddalena begging her brother to spare the handsome stranger’s life. Sparafucile agrees to deceive Rigoletto by substituting the corpse of the next person who appears at the inn. Determined to sacrifice herself so the Duke may live, Gilda becomes Sparafucile’s next victim. Rigoletto returns and is given a sack containing a body. Hearing the Duke’s voice in the distance, he frantically cuts open the bag and finds his dying daughter. Begging her father’s forgiveness, she dies. Rigoletto cries out once more, “Ah, the curse!”
Rigoletto director E. Loren Meeker, in conversation with Lyric dramaturg Roger Pines.
What does Rigoletto have to say to audiences today?
Two universal areas of interest make Rigoletto relevant to a modern audience. First are the powerful, intrinsically human themes – the deeply rooted desire for love, man’s fascination with money, corruption of power, and the duality of human nature (good vs. evil). We struggle with these issues in our fragile world today as much as humanity did when Rigoletto was composed.
The second connection acknowledges that the political environment of Rigoletto feels eerily similar to the world we currently live in. Every audience member can probably think of a present day government where issues surrounding money, sex, and corruption are systematic: Do we trust our leaders? What are they doing with their time and their money? How are they treating the people – especially the women – around them? How do people take their power and use it to influence the world and people around them?
Looking at these large, overarching issues makes me say, why wouldn’t we be telling this story now? It speaks to who we are as humans, trying to craft our lives towards our good or evil tendencies. Which side of the coin ultimately wins?
You choreographed Rigoletto early in your career, and now you’re directing it. What are you discovering about the opera this time around?
Each time I encounter an opera, I bring new life experience and perspective to it. The depth of research I’ve done for this production has revealed to me how married the drama is to Verdi’s music. Scholars describe Verdi as coming into his “middle phase” when he was composing Rigoletto. He was starting to dig into his material by writing music that was driven by the drama. Specific to Rigoletto, he was exploring deeply emotional and flawed characters. He created a world where each character is ambivalent, torn between the two strong sides of human nature – usually morally correct and morally corrupt desires. This piece is rampant with characters who are forced to make choices that reveal who they are at their core. All the characters struggle with their intrinsic nature. Listening to those feelings and impulses come to life musically, exploring the depth of character flaws in the libretto, and seeing how Verdi marries music and drama, is stunning.
What are the greatest challenges in staging Rigoletto?
My primary focus is to bring Verdi’s characters to life in as charged an atmosphere as possible. Working with such a great libretto means that as a team of artists we must intensely focus on bringing the text to life. Scenes can be crafted in a way that allows the audience to have an inside window into the emotional soul of each of character, especially in the ensemble scenes.
I also enjoy activating large chorus scenes. Working with a group as strong as the Lyric chorus allows me to create individual, nuanced performances. The chorus scenes are not static in Rigoletto! Looking at the musical structure, the text, and the setting reveals environments that are ripe with activity – sometimes large and chaotic like the opening scene, at other times boiling with subtle tension like a gang or mob, as with the kidnapping scene.
What traits in Rigoletto himself are you most interested in exploring?
He’s the clearest depiction of an ambivalent character – someone who struggles with the two sides of his nature. This struggle stems from the environment he lives in.
lives in. In Rigoletto’s time, society limited working opportunities for someone from the lower class, especially someone who would have been considered “deformed.” Playing a court jester grates on him. He’s tortured by his personal frustrations and by the court itself. His hatred for his lot in life, and what society has made him, makes him more cynically abusive as a jester rather than verbally funny. He considers his barbed tongue as fierce a weapon as Sparafucile’s knife.
As the dark side of his nature gets progressively stronger (by the end of the first scene he mocks a father whose daughter has been sexually abused), he has to fight harder to keep the good elements in his life safely hidden from the world’s evils. Fatherly love is as honest an emotion for Rigoletto as the cynical side that we see from him as the abused jester, but it’s a catch-22: his desire to keep Gilda pure and safe, to keep her from knowing that the world she lives in is harsh, violent, and predatory, is the very thing that causes her to rebel. Exploring these extremes within the character is vital.
What can you tell us about Michael Yeargan’s sets and Constance Hoffman’s costumes?
Michael and Constance were interested in creating a world that stayed away from a more traditional dark, black, and heavy setting. They challenged themselves to find another way to tell the story. While conceiving the production, they were examining different ways the Renaissance era was depicted over time. They became fascinated with 1940s films – you’ll see this influence clearly represented in the costumes. They were also researching surrealist painters, and Giorgio de Chirico captured their imagination. His color palette and architectural style are strong influences on the scenic design, creating a very stylized world. The production feels abstract and surprisingly colorful, full of harsh angles and bold colors that help bring the characters to life.
Is there any composer who invigorates an opera audience more than Giuseppe Verdi? No Verdi score is graced more abundantly with unforgettable melodies than one of the greatest masterpieces of his “middle period,” Rigoletto. Whether you’re hearing this opera for the first or the hundredth time, you’ll have “La donna è mobile,” “Caro nome,” and all the other gems in your memory for days after the performance – they’re simply irresistible.
Like all the most popular Verdi works, Rigoletto has always been part of my operagoing life. From my very first experience of it to today, I’ve never failed to be riveted by the story of the hunchbacked court jester. It’s impossible to remain unmoved as we witness how this man’s desperate need to protect his innocent daughter and his overwhelming desire for revenge lead to tragic catastrophe for them both. Few characters in the repertoire make such a devastating impact as Rigoletto, and certainly there are few tenor cads as dangerously charming as the Duke of Mantua or ingénues more sweetly appealing than Gilda.
Only a truly extraordinary performer can make Rigoletto his signature role in the major opera houses of the world, and Lyric's Ryan Opera Center alumnus Quinn Kelsey has been doing just that for the past six seasons. In performances from Oslo and Zurich to London, Toronto, and San Francisco, Quinn has sung and acted Rigoletto with both a power and a finesse that recall the greatest interpreters of this hugely challenging role. Many critics have placed him in the “royal line” of American Verdi baritones, from Lawrence Tibbett and Robert Merrill to Cornell MacNeil and Sherrill Milnes.
Joining Quinn onstage at Lyric is fellow Ryan Opera Center alumnus Matthew Polenzani, world-renowned as one of today’s most distinguished tenors, from whom we can anticipate a matchlessly elegant Duke of Mantua. A very eagerly awaited debut this season is that of our Gilda, the young Italian soprano Rosa Feola, who enchanted Chicago’s opera lovers in Falstaff for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s performances two seasons ago. I know hers will be one of the most impressive international careers of her generation. I’m also delighted at the prospect of two other exceptional debuts – the charismatic Ukrainian bass Alexander Tsymbalyuk (Sparafucile) and the captivating young Latvian mezzo-soprano Zanda Švēde (Maddalena).
Any Verdi production is immeasurably enhanced when it’s conducted by a musician whose affinity for the style is his birthright. That is certainly true of one of today’s most sought-after opera conductors, Marco Armiliato, who has been demonstrating his excellence in Verdi at the Metropolitan Opera for more than two decades, while also making his presence felt in Vienna, Zurich, Munich, and many other major houses. His collaboration with director E. Loren Meeker (who gave Lyric a dazzling Fledermaus a few seasons ago), enhanced by the strikingly original stage designs by Michael Yeargan, will yield a production in the great Lyric tradition – a classic Rigoletto for Lyric audiences to savor.
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Verdi's Rigoletto is one of those unusual 19th-century Italian operas not principally built around a romantic love story. It’s questionable whether the term “love story” even applies to it: although Gilda certainly loves the Duke, he forgets all about Gilda once he’s seduced her. The relationship that really matters in Rigoletto is of another sort entirely: that between a father and a daughter. In this respect Verdi and his librettist Piave directly followed their model, Victor Hugo’s drama Le roi s’amuse, which served as the opera’s source; Hugo himself insisted on the crucial nature of the parent-child relationship in his play.
The focus on a parent and a child isn’t unusual for Verdi. In fact, the parent-child relationship has long been recognized as an element shared by a large number of Verdi’s operas. In some, like Rigoletto, it plays a fundamental role in the working out of the plot; Luisa Miller, La traviata, I vespri siciliani, Simon Boccanegra, Don Carlo, and Aida are among the better-known works falling into this category. Those exploring Verdi's earlier and lesser-known works will discover still further examples: Oberto, I Lombardi, I due Foscari, Alzira, Giovanna d’Arco, I masnadieri, and Stiffelio all engage with the complex relationships between parents and their children – the peculiarly forceful tension arising from deep, unconditional love on the one hand and the conflicting impulses and points of view of different generations.
That already makes for a considerable number of Verdian parents. Within this large group of parental roles, mothers are outnumbered by fathers by a fair margin, but their presence is far from negligible if we add to the “real” mothers (Amelia in Un ballo in maschera, Alice Ford in Falstaff) the quasimaternal figures of Azucena (Manrico believes she is his mother right until he’s put to death at the end of Il trovatore) and Elisabetta in Don Carlo (she starts out as the title character’s betrothed and ends up his stepmother), as well as those works in which absent mothers are invoked by characters onstage (Lina’s mother in Stiffelio, Gilda’s mother in Rigoletto, and Desdemona’s mother in Otello, all of them unnamed).
Such a dense concentration of operatic parents and children in Verdi is all the more striking for its being unusual within the Italian repertoire overall. How many mothers or fathers are there in such standard works as The Barber of Seville, L’elisir d’amore, La bohème, Tosca, or Pagliacci? Precisely none. A more important point is that Verdi’s predilection for plots with parents and children cannot possibly be coincidental. Unlike many composers of preceding generations (often obligated to set to music, willy-nilly, whatever librettos were placed before them by tyrannical impresarios), Verdi through most of his career exercised the highest degree of control over the subjects of his operas. He himself selected most of these stories for operatic treatment, and often playing a dominant role in shaping the dramatic contours of his works, imperiously issuing orders to his librettists. If so many Verdi operas feature parent/child conflict, it can only have been because he found such stories compelling – but why?
Several commentators delving into the composer’s biography have contented themselves with a psychological explanation, typically zeroing in on Verdi’s tragic loss of his two infant children in the late 1830s (followed by his wife’s death in 1840). Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine that Verdi wouldn’t have thought back to this painful period when composing music for the grief-stricken fathers of Luisa Miller, Rigoletto, and Simon Boccanegra. Readers of Mary Jane Phillips Matz’s definitive biography of the composer will also know of the deeply conflictual relationship between Verdi and his own father, who for a time actually found himself booted from the home he’d been sharing with his by-then famous son. It’s tempting to conclude, as many have done, that Verdi’s parent-child works are subconscious attempts to work out his own painful experiences as both father and son. Armchair psychoanalysis can be fascinating, especially in the case of such a richly complex figure as Verdi, but the validity of the conclusions reached is as difficult to prove as to disprove. A more serious objection is that such an approach risks oversimplification of Verdi’s art. A purely psychological explanation fails to take account of the paradoxical artistic premise of opera itself: that it is at once a drama and a musical composition.
Musical description, particularly when it gets technical, is apt to be off-putting to those unfamiliar with pitches, keys, and other concepts and terms best learned through notation – a closed book even for many devoted opera goers. But the concepts in themselves aren’t difficult to grasp. Rigoletto happens to provide an ideal proving ground for exploring how the musical aspects of parent/ child relationships can be just as important as the personal ones.
The first point to consider is obvious: young voices are naturally pitched higher than older voices. Rooted in physiology, vocal range therefore has long been enlisted as a realistic means of suggesting the age of certain characters. Casting sopranos and tenors as an opera’s youthful protagonists, while reserving lower-register singers (bass or baritone for men, contraltos or mezzo-sopranos for women), became a standard procedure during the 19th century, though there were notable exceptions. Moreover, tenors and sopranos are able sing the same melody on the same notes, albeit an octave apart, while a father will be differentiated vocally by being sung in a lower register, by either a baritone (Rigoletto, La traviata, Aida) or a bass (Luisa Miller, Don Carlo). This registral contrast is also often matched by thematic contrast: the two vocal lines in a duet involving a parent and a child may have different rhythms and melodic contours, rather than sharing identical material.
Let's explore how these abstract notions play out in Rigoletto’s three magnificent father/ daughter duets, one in each act, which may be said to provide the basic pillars supporting the opera. Each duet is marked by dramatic and musical contrast. The importance of duets in this opera was stressed by Verdi in a letter of 1852, when he was asked to alter the score for an upcoming performance including the soprano Teresa de Giuli. The specific request was to insert an additional aria for Gilda. Verdi refused, explaining that it would be impossible to introduce another aria into a work he’d conceived “almost without arias, without [grand] finales, an endless string of duets.” He was exaggerating, of course (the opera includes four important solo vocal numbers, as well as the stunning quartet and trio of Act Three) – but not by much. The unusual structure of Act One features three consecutive duets (Rigoletto/Sparafucile, Rigoletto/Gilda, Gilda/Duke), and the Rigoletto/Gilda duets of Acts Two and Three crystallize further key emotional highpoints. Duets outnumbering solo arias, as happens here, would have been unimaginable in a work by Rossini who, with all of his Romantic verve, retained the emphasis on solo singing that he’d inherited from Baroque opera
In the first Rigoletto/Gilda duet, the highly expressive passage in which Rigoletto begs his daughter not to question him further about her mother is entirely absent from Gilda’s part. Conversely, later in the same duet Gilda’s sympathetic observations about her father’s loving concern for her are set to music sung only by her, not by Rigoletto. Verdi must have instinctively felt that such distinctive themes were integral to individual characterization; they couldn’t be shared by the two roles, but belonged exclusively to one or the other. The baritone/soprano vocal pairing thus enhances a differentiation that is simultaneously dramatic and musical.
Contrast that duet with the one that directly follows, between Gilda and the Duke, starting with the astonishing moment of the Duke’s entrance. Gilda has just confessed to her servant, Giovanna, that she’s in love with a handsome young man she saw in church; she’s unaware that the Duke is attentively eavesdropping. Then comes the first of two important moments in Rigoletto when Gilda begins a word without finishing it (the second such moment is easier to catch because it’s more exposed: at the end of the opera, Gilda dies before being able to eke out the final syllable of the phrase “per voi pregherò,” “I will pray for you”). Now, at the point of the Duke’s surprising entrance into her home, Gilda doesn't sing the last syllable of the phrase “E l’alma in estasi gli dice t'amo” (“My soul in ecstasy says to him, ‘I love you’”), but for a different reason: he interrupts her, singing the complete word “t’amo” (“I love you”) on the exact same note where he herself was clearly headed. This inspired idea could only have been realized with two high voices, in this case soprano and tenor.
The Act Two Rigoletto/Gilda duet bears a strong resemblance to their first duet, again pitting the baritone’s paternal sternness against the soprano’s youthful impetuosity. The dramatically significant difference is that this duet occurs after the disaster of Gilda being seduced by the Duke. The duet therefore concludes with Rigoletto vowing vengeance on the Duke, while Gilda pleads for pity on his behalf. Here, in contrast to their previous duet, their different words are sung to the same melodic theme, but – necessarily – in different keys, forcing Verdi into abrupt modulations as the cabaletta shifts from baritone- to soprano-dominated lines. Thematically they’re placed in symmetrical opposition, but tonally the generational divide, which will lead to the final tragedy, is fully apparent.
In their final, emotionally devastating duet, father and daughter are in close physical proximity but miles apart psychologically. Utterly distraught, Rigoletto begs his dying daughter not to abandon him, while the gently resigned Gilda will only assure him that in heaven, where she’ll be reunited with her mother, they’ll pray for him. Her soaring lines and his desperate pleas are not only strikingly differentiated thematically, but lie at opposite vocal poles.
It’s worth noting that the baritone voice type is not to be found within the first two centuries of operatic history, but was largely a 19th-century development: for many years previously, it was simply a particular sort of bass, situated towards the higher end of that range. Historically, Verdi’s works were crucial in carving out a special place for the baritone as its own distinct category. This was partly due to the composer’s fondness for certain singers, most notably Felice Varesi, the first Rigoletto, for whom Verdi had already written Macbeth (1847), and for whom he would write Germont in La traviata two years after Rigoletto.
The common-sense explanation of why Rigoletto is a baritone (because Verdi was writing music for a father) should not exclude the reverse possibility: that Verdi chose stories about fathers because he was so intrigued by the expressive potential of the baritone voice, both on its own and in juxtaposition with a tenor son or a soprano daughter, with all the rich musical expansion this permitted. The supreme artistic result has everything to do with why Rigoletto has long been regarded as one of Verdi's great leaps forward.
Jesse Rosenberg is Clinical Associate Professor of Musicology at Northwestern University and a specialist in 19th- and 20th-century Italian opera.