feels malice to


[rig-uh-let-oh; It. ree-gaw-let-taw]

Rigoletto is an opera in three acts by Giuseppe Verdi. The Italian libretto was written by Francesco Maria Piave based on the play Le roi s'amuse by Victor Hugo. It was first performed at La Fenice in Venice on March 11, 1851. It is considered by many to be the first of the operatic masterpieces of Verdi's middle-to-late career.

As a staple of the standard operatic repertoire, it appears as number nine on Opera America's list of the 20 most-performed operas in North America.

History of composition

Verdi was commissioned to write a new opera by the theatre La Fenice, Venice in 1850, when he was already a well known composer with a certain freedom of choosing the works he would prefer. He then asked Piave (with whom he had already created Ernani, I due Foscari, Macbeth, Il Corsaro and Stiffelio) to examine the play Kean by Alexandre Dumas, père, but he felt he needed a more energetic subject to work on.

Verdi soon stumbled upon Victor Hugo's Le roi s'amuse. He later explained that "It contains extremely powerful positions ... The subject is great, immense, and has a character that is one of the most important creations of the theatre of all countries and all Ages".

It was a highly controversial subject indeed, and Hugo himself had already had trouble with censorship in France, which had banned productions of his play after its first performance nearly twenty years earlier (and would continue to ban it for another thirty years). As Austria at that time directly controlled much of Northern Italy, it came before the Austrian Board of Censors.

From the beginning, Verdi was aware of the risks as was Piave. A letter has been found in which Verdi wrote to Piave: "Use four legs, run through the town and find me an influential person who can obtain the permission for making Le Roi s'amuse." Correspondence between a prudent Piave and an already committed Verdi followed, and the two remained at risk and underestimated the power and the intentions of Austrians. Even the friendly Guglielmo Brenna, secretary of La Fenice who had promised them that they would not have problems with the censors, was in error.

At the beginning of the summer of 1850, some rumors started to spread that Austrian censorship was going to forbid the production. They considered the Hugo work to verge on lese majeste, and would never permit such a scandalous work to be performed in Venice.

In August, Verdi and Piave prudently retired to Busseto, Verdi's hometown, to continue the composition and prepare a defensive scheme. They wrote to the theatre, assuring them that the censor's doubts about the morality of the work were not justified but since very little time was left, very little could be done. The work was secretly called by the composers The Malediction (or The Curse), and this unofficial title was used by Austrian censor De Gorzkowski (who evidently had known of it from spies) to enforce, if needed, the violent letter by which he definitively denied consent to its production.

In order not to waste all their work, Piave tried to revise the libretto and was even able to pull from it another opera Il Duca di Vendome, in which the sovereign was substituted with a duke and both the hunchback and the curse disappeared. Verdi was completely against this proposed solution and preferred instead to have direct negotiations with censors, arguing over each and every point of the work.

At this point Brenna, La Fenice's secretary, showed the Austrians some letters and articles depicting the bad character but the great value of the artist, helping to mediate the dispute. In the end the parties were able to agree that the action of the opera had to be moved from the royal court of France to a duchy of France or Italy, as well as a renaming of the characters. The scene in which the sovereign retires in Gilda's bedroom would be deleted and the visit of the Duke to the Taverna was not intentional anymore, but provoked by a trick. The hunchback (originally Triboulet) became Rigoletto (from French rigolo = funny). The name of the work too was changed.

For the première, Verdi had Felice Varesi as Rigoletto, the young tenor Raffaele Mirate as the Duke, and Teresina Brambilla as Gilda (though Verdi would have preferred Teresa De Giuli Borsi). Teresina Brambilla was a well-known soprano coming from a family of singers and musicians; one of her nieces, Teresa Brambilla, was the wife of Amilcare Ponchielli.

The opening was a complete triumph, especially the scenica dramatica, and the Duke's cynical aria, "La donna è mobile", was sung in the streets the next morning.

Due to the high risk of unauthorised copying, Verdi had demanded the maximum secrecy from all his singers and musicians. Mirate had use of his score only a few evenings before the première and was forced to swear he would not sing or even whistle the tune of "La donna è mobile".

Many years later, Giulia Cori, Varesi's daughter, described her father's performance at the premiere. Playing the original Rigoletto, her father was really uncomfortable with the false hump he had to wear; he was so uncertain that, even though he was quite an experienced singer, he had a panic attack when it was his turn to enter the stage. Verdi immediately realised he was paralysed and roughly pushed him on the stage, so he appeared with a clumsy tumble. The audience, thinking it was a gag, was very amused.


Role Voice type Premiere cast,
March 11, 1851
(Conductor: - )
Rigoletto, the Duke's jester baritone Felice Varesi
Gilda, his daughter soprano Teresa Brambilla
Duke of Mantua tenor Raffaelle Mirate
Sparafucile, an assassin bass Paolo Damini
Maddalena, his sister contralto Annetta Casaloni
Giovanna, Gilda's Nurse mezzo-soprano Laura Saini
Count Ceprano bass Andrea Bellini
Countess Ceprano, his wife mezzo-soprano Luigia Morselli
Matteo Borsa, a courtier tenor Angelo Zuliani
Count Monterone baritone Feliciano Ponz
Marullo baritone Francesco De Kunnerth
A Court Usher bass Giovanni Rizzi
A Page mezzo-soprano


Place: Mantua and vicinity.
Time: the Sixteenth century.

Act 1

Scene 1: A room in the palace

At a gathering in his palace, the Duke sings of a life of pleasure with as many women as possible ("Questa o quella" - This woman or that). He has seen an unknown beauty in church and desires to possess her, but he also wishes to seduce the Countess Ceprano. Rigoletto, the Duke's hunchbacked jester, mocks the husbands of the ladies to whom the Duke is paying attention, and advises the Duke to get rid of them by prison or death. The noblemen, especially Count Monterone, whose daughter the Duke had dishonoured, resolve to take vengeance on Rigoletto. Monterone curses the Duke and Rigoletto.

Scene 2: A street, with the courtyard of Rigoletto's house

Thinking of the curse, the jester approaches his house and is accosted by the assassin Sparafucile, who offers his services. Rigoletto contemplates the similarities between the two of them ("Pari siamo!" - We are alike!); Sparafucile kills men with his sword, and Rigoletto uses "a tongue of malice" to stab his victims. The hunchback opens a door in the wall and returns home to his daughter Gilda. They greet each other warmly ("Figlia! Mio padre!" - Daughter! My father!). Rigoletto has been concealing his daughter from the prince and the rest of the city, and she does not know her father's occupation. Since he has forbidden her to appear in public, she has been nowhere except to church.

When Rigoletto has gone, the Duke appears and overhears Gilda confess to her nurse Giovanna that she feels guilty for not having told her father about a student she had met at the church, but that she would love him even more if he were poor. Just as she declares her love, the Duke enters, overjoyed, convincing Gilda of his love, though she resists at first. When she asks for his name, he hesitantly calls himself Gualtier Maldé. Hearing sounds and fearing that her father has returned, Gilda sends the Duke away after they quickly repeat their vows of love to each other. Alone Gilda meditates on her love for the student ("Gualtier Maldè! ... Caro nome" - Dearest name).

Later, the hostile noblemen outside the walled garden, believing her to be the jester's mistress, convince Rigoletto to help them abduct the Countess Ceprano. He assists them in their arrangements, but they actually abduct Gilda. Too late, Rigoletto realizes that he has been duped and, collapsing, remembers the curse.

Act 2

The Duke's Palace

The Duke is concerned that Gilda has disappeared ("Ella mi fu rapita!" - She was stolen from me! and "Parmi veder le lagrime" - I seem to see tears). When the noblemen inform him that they have captured Rigoletto's mistress and, by their description, he recognizes it to be Gilda, he rushes off to the room where she is held ("Possente amor mi chiama" - Mighty love beckons me). Perplexed at first by the Duke's strange excitement, the courtiers now make sport with Rigoletto. He tries to find Gilda by pretending to be uncaring, as he fears she may fall into the hands of the Duke. Finally, to general astonishment, he acknowledges that he is seeking his daughter and asks the courtiers to return her to him ("Cortigiani, vil razza dannata" - Accursed race of courtiers). Gilda rushes in, begs her father to send the people away, and describes what has happened to her in the palace ("Tutte le feste al tempio" - On all the blessed days). Rigoletto demands vengeance against the Duke, while Gilda pleads for him (Duet: "Sì! Vendetta, tremenda vendetta!" - Yes! Revenge, terrible revenge!).

Act 3

A street outside an Inn

A portion of Sparafucile's house is seen, with two rooms open to the view of the audience. Rigoletto and Gilda, who still loves the Duke, arrive outside. The Duke's voice can be heard ("La donna è mobile"- Woman is fickle) laying out the infidelity and fickle nature of women. Rigoletto makes Gilda realize that it is the Duke who is in the assassin's house and that he is attempting to seduce Sparafucile's sister, Maddalena.

Rigoletto bargains with the assassin, who is ready to murder his guest for money, and offers him 20 scudi for killing the Duke. He orders his daughter to put on a man's clothes in order to prepare to go to Verona and states that he plans to follow later. With falling darkness, a thunderstorm approaches and the Duke determines to remain in the house. Sparafucile assigns to him the ground floor sleeping quarters.

Gilda, who still loves the Duke and despite knowing him to be unfaithful, returns dressed as a man. She overhears Maddalena begging for the Duke's life, so the assassin promise her that, if by midnight another can be found in place of the Duke, he will spare the Duke's life.(Quartet: "Un dì, se ben rammentomi ... Bella figlia dell'amore" - Sweet daughter of love). Gilda resolves to sacrifice herself for the Duke and enters the house. She is immediately mortally wounded and collapses.

At midnight, when Rigoletto arrives with money, he receives a corpse wrapped in a sack, and rejoices in his triumph. Weighting it with stones, he is about to cast the sack into the river when he hears the voice of the Duke singing a reprise of his Woman is fickle aria. Bewildered, he opens the sack and, to his despair, discovers his mortally wounded daughter. For a moment, she revives and declares she is glad to die for her beloved ("V'ho ingannato" - Father, I deceived you). As she takes her final breath, Rigoletto's wildest fear materializes when he exclaims in horror: "The curse!"

Selected recordings

Year Cast
(Duke of Mantua, Rigoletto, Gilda, Sparafucile, Maddalena)
Opera House and Orchestra
1950 Jan Peerce,
Leonard Warren,
Erna Berger,
Italo Tajo,
Nan Merriman
Renato Cellini
Robert Shaw (chorale),
RCA Victor Orchestra and The Robert Shaw Chorale
Audio CD: Membran/Quadromania
Cat: 222182-444
(Also contains recording of Il trovatore)
1955 Giuseppe di Stefano,
Tito Gobbi,
Maria Callas,
Nicola Zaccaria,
Adriana Lazzarini
Tullio Serafin,
Teatro alla Scala orchestra and chorus
Audio CD: EMI
Cat: 747469
1963 Alfredo Kraus,
Robert Merrill,
Anna Moffo,
Ezio Flagello,
Rosalind Elias
Georg Solti,
RCA Italiana Opera Chorus and Orchestra
Audio CD: RCA Victor
1971 Luciano Pavarotti,
Sherrill Milnes,
Joan Sutherland,
Martti Talvela,
Huguette Tourangeau
Richard Bonynge,
London Symphony Orchestra
Ambrosian Opera Chorus
Audio CD: Decca
Cat: 414-269-2
1977 Plácido Domingo,
Cornell MacNeil,
Ileana Cotrubas,
Justino Díaz,
Isola Jones
James Levine,
Metropolitan Opera orchestra and chorus
(production by John Dexter)
DVD: Deutsche Grammophon
Cat: 00440 073 0930
1982 Luciano Pavarotti,
Ingvar Wixell,
Edita Gruberova,
Ferruccio Furlanetto
Victoria Vergara
Riccardo Chailly,
Wiener Philharmoniker
Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor
(film by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle)
DVD: Deutsche Grammophon
Cat: 00440 073 4166
DVD: Decca
Cat: 071401
1998 Luciano Pavarotti,
Vladimir Chernov,
Cheryl Studer,
Roberto Scandiuzzi
Denyce Graves
James Levine,
Metropolitan Opera orchestra and chorus
(production by Pål Christian Moe)
Audio CD: Deutsche Grammophon
Cat: 447 064-2

Note: "Cat:" is short for catalogue number by the label company.




  • The Opera Goer's Complete Guide by Leo Melitz, 1921 version.

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