The Jester’s Curse

As I pointed out in the preceding post, some tricksters in literature and other art forms become tragic figures, their tricks turning on them in bitter, devastating ways. One of my favorite examples is the darkly sympathetic antihero of Giuseppe Verdi‘s magnificent dramatic opera, Rigoletto, & my favorite performer of this & many other operatic roles by Verdi and others was the incomparable American baritone, Leonard Warren. In this post, I will use examples featuring Warren along with some of his great contemporaries, most from a live 1945 recording, to highlight some of the dramatic arias & ensembles from this Verdi masterwork, illustrating Rigoletto’s fall from mocking jester to devastated father.

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Set design for Act I Scene 2 from the 11 March 1851 world premier staging of Rigoletto

The story of Rigoletto was based on Victor Hugo‘s Le roi s’amuse (The king amuses himself). Rigoletto, the highly favored hunch-backed jester at the court of the Duke of Mantua, uses his brutally sardonic wit to amuse the duke at the expense of courtiers, nobles, & the duke’s romantic conquests. Verdi’s melodramatic original title for the opera was La maledizione (The curse), referring to the plot twist on which Rigoletto’s heartless jests turn, leading ultimately to his calamitous undoing.

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Album cover from complete recording of Rigoletto featuring Leonard Warren

As the opera opens, a party is under way at the ducal palace, & the duke is plying his seductive skills with one woman after another, married or not, while Rigoletto earns ever greater hatred from the courtiers by urging his master to take liberties, especially with the wife of one of the courtiers. The duke sings one of the joyful, carefree, richly melodic arias (“Questa o quella” – “This one or that one”) for which his role is justly beloved, declaring that one woman is as good as another. The legendary Swedish tenor, Jussi Björling, is heard in this live recording.

Rigoletto had mocked the elderly count Monterone, whose daughter he had urged the duke to take for his pleasure. The distraught father is arrested after berating both duke & jester for his daughter’s despoiling. As he is dragged off to prison, Monterone hurls a father’s curse at both antagonists. Rigoletto is horrified by the curse, dwelling on it, repeating over & over: “Quel vecchio maledivami!” (“That old man cursed me!”)

Hurrying to assure himself that his own beloved daughter, Gilda, whom he has endeavored to keep secret from the world, is safe at home, Rigoletto encounters an assassin for hire named Sparafucile who offers his services, indicating that Rigoletto apparently has a rival for the young woman in his house. The jester refuses but, shocked at the suggestion that Gilda’s presence hasn’t remained secret, stores away Sparafucile’s contact information in case he should need his services later. We hear the matchless baritone Leonard Warren as Rigoletto, with bass Norman Cordon in the role of Sparafucile.

After his encounter with the hired blade, Rigoletto ruminates on the ways he is similar to Sparafucile, & differs from the duke (“Pari siamo!” – “We are equals!”). Rigoletto’s weapon is his tongue, while Sparafucile uses a blade; one employs laughter, the other violence. Again he resumes his troubled musing on the old man’s curse, & the way nature corrupted him by making him ugly & a hunchback, condemning him to life as a jester & denying him the freedom to weep, while the young, handsome duke & his rich courtiers command him to be amusing. Leonard Warren is heard again, demonstrating his dramatic vocal range & power.

Unaware that Gilda has encountered the libertine duke at church, disguised as a poor student, & he has already captured her affection with his good looks & seductiveness, Rigoletto tries to put aside his fear of the curse. He greets his daughter warmly, but strongly implores her never to go out except to church, & to take care not to talk to anyone or let anyone follow her home. However, the duke has indeed followed her, & has bribed Rigoletto’s housekeeper to let him into the courtyard.

As Rigoletto leaves, the duke overhears him say “Mia figlia, addio” – “Good night, my daughter” & registers surprise at her identity. Gilda wonders aloud to the housekeeper if she was wrong not to have told her father about the handsome young man who follows her to church. The housekeeper, having been bribed by the visitor whom she recognizes as the duke, only replies that he seems a fine gentleman, but Gilda says that she hopes he is poor. As she says this, he comes up behind her, declaring that he loves her. At first alarmed, she warms to his flattering words (“È il sol dell’anima” – “Love is the sunshine of the soul”). Answering her query about his identity, he declares that he is a poor student, making up the name Gualtier Maldè (Walter Maldè).

Meanwhile, a group of courtiers who have been frequent victims of Rigoletto’s vicious mocking plan to take revenge by abducting Gilda, who they believe to be his mistress. The housekeeper hears them moving outside the wall, & warns Gilda, who assumes that her father is returning & urges the supposed poor student to leave. They part with an impassioned “Addio, addio!” – “Goodbye, goodbye!” Jussi Björling is joined here by the sublime Brazilian coloratura Bidu Sayão (best remembered today for her incredible range, as demonstrated in a work written for her – Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 by fellow Brazilian Heitor Villa-Lobos – see link at the end of this post *).

Now alone, Gilda meditates on the name made up by the duke (“Caro nome” – “Dear name”), while the courtiers prepare to abduct her. Bidu Sayão displays her remarkable sweetness, range, & power in this recording.

The courtiers come upon Rigoletto near his house, & decide to heighten the sweetness of their revenge by duping him to become their unwitting accomplice in Gilda’s abduction. “Zitti, zitti, cheti, cheti” (“Softly, softly, stealthily, stealthily”) is their chant as they carry her off to the duke for his pleasure. As they cheer “Vittoria!” (“Victory!”), Gilda cries out “Soccorso, padre mio! Aita!” (“Help, father! Help!”). Rigoletto realizes too late what has happened, wailing “Gilda! Gilda!”, & then “Ah! La maledizione!” (“Ah! The curse!”), & faints as Act I ends. This ensemble includes the famed German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, soprano Renata Scotto, along with other soloists & chorus.

In the next post, the story continues with Act II, as Rigoletto, already suffering from the consequences of his cruel humor, learns that he has not yet begun to feel the full force of la maledizione (the curse).

*As mentioned earlier, Bidu Sayào is justifiably famed for her performances of Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 by Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos, a work scored for solo soprano & a 16 cello ensemble.

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