Rigoletto, Baths of Caracalla
At the time of composing Rigoletto, Giuseppe Verdi was already an established composer with a pronounced taste for classic drama. When he received a commission from Venice’s Gran Teatro La Fenice, he quickly teamed up with one of his favourite librettists, Francesco Maria Piave, in search of a good source text. After some brooding, the pair homed in on Le Roi s’amuse, the controversial and caustic critique of royal excess by French playwright Victor Hugo. Following a brush with the censors, Verdi and Piave had to adapt the storyline by placing it further in the past and demoting the king to a duke. Those changes did nothing to diminish the opera’s bombastic impact and success: the premiere at Gran Teatro La Fenice in Venice on 11 March 1851 was nothing short of triumphant. Since then, Rigoletto has been a constant presence in the opera repertoire. Its infectious melodies and intense drama find a great home at the historic Baths of Caracalla in Rome this season.
In Verdi’s Rigoletto, there are no heroes. The womanising Duke of Mantua, his sharp-tongued hunchback court jester Rigoletto, the scorned courtiers who play along despite the humiliation – everyone is culpable to a degree. The only character without apparent faults is Gilda, the jester’s secret daughter whom he loves dearly. Despite Rigoletto’s extensive efforts to insulate the young woman from the debauchery of the Duke’s court, the Duke of Mantua eventually finds out about Gilda and is quick to seduce her under the disguise of a student. When Rigoletto finds out, his loyalty to his master quickly turns into white-hot rage. Overwhelmed with the need of vengeance, the hunchback devises a plan to have the Duke assassinated, but poetic justice would have it otherwise, punishing the two-faced enabler and chief cheerleader of the court’s wicked ways.
The plot of Rigoletto is as dramatic as Verdi’s remarkable score. The opera stands out with its musical intensity and clever character development through carefully crafted themes and motifs. The standout aria is ‘La donna è mobile’, the sarcastic solo number that reveals the Duke of Mantua’s misogynist views. At Terme di Caracalla in Rome, Verdi’s tunes sound more gripping than ever.