The Jester’s Curse Continues

In the preceding post, I presented a synopsis of Act I of Giuseppe Verdi’s tragic opera Rigoletto, which he originally intended to title La maledizione (The curse). An example of a trickster undone, a darkly sympathetic antihero, Rigoletto is a brutally insulting court jester whose jests turn back on him, devastating him utterly.

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Album cover from complete recording of Rigoletto featuring Leonard Warren

Act II opens with the duke’s ironic aria “Ella mi fu rapita” (“She has been stolen from me!”), telling himself that she was the first girl to awaken true love in him, & that he will avenge her abduction (“Parmi veder le lagrime” – “My beloved’s tears demand it.”). Once again Jussi Björling portrays the duke.

The courtiers burst in with the bewildered Gilda, & then the duke reverts to form, taking her triumphantly with him into his bedchamber.

Rigoletto arrives at court, feigning indifference with a nonsense song (“La rà, la rà, la rà…”) while searching for any sign of his daughter. They play on his pain, taunting him (“Povero Rigoletto!” – “Poor Rigoletto!”) – (“Ch’hai di nuovo, Buffon?” – “What’s new, jester?”) & finally goading him with the declaration that they had made him unwittingly help them steal his mistress. He explodes, revealing to their amazement that she is his daughter. He confronts the courtiers, pleading that they return her to him, but then realizes that she must be with the duke. He curses them (“Cortigiani, vil razza dannata” – “Courtiers, vile damned rabble!”), threatens them with the indomitable wrath of a parent protecting his child, then understands that they all oppose him & begs them to pity him & reunite them (“Miei signori, perdono, pietate!” – “Pardon me, my lords, take pity on me!”). We first hear legendary Italian baritone Titta Ruffo as Rigoletto searching for Gilda. Then Leonard Warren displays his peerless range of emotions in the aria, filled with rage & pathos.

Gilda bursts from the duke’s chamber & collapses in her father’s arms. (“Mio Padre!” … “Dio! Mia Gilda!” “Father!” … “Oh God! My Gilda!”) He desperately tries to make light of the situation until Gilda sobs “Ah, l’onta, padre mio!” (“Oh, father, the shame!”) & he asks her to tell him what happened. She says that what she has to say is for his ears only, & he demands that the courtiers leave them, & keep the duke away. When they are alone, she confesses that she had been captivated by a young man she saw each day at church, who came to their home last night & declared his love for her, then left. Suddenly men came & took her away to the palace. Lorenzo Molajoli, Mercedes Capsir, soloists, & La Scala Chorus & Orchestra are heard in this 1930 recording.

Rigoletto bemoans his fate, saying to himself “Ah! Solo per me l’infamia” – “Ah! I only asked infamy for myself” so he could raise her as high as he had fallen, but now all is lost. He tells Gilda to weep. She replies that an angel is consoling her through him, but he responds that before they can begin to recover, he has a task he must perform.

At this moment, an usher & two halberdiers escort Count Monterone from the palace to prison. The count states his regret that his curse has failed, that neither thunderbolt nor steel has struck the duke, & he will live on happily. Leonard Warren, Bidu Sayão, & other soloists are heard in this selection.

Rigoletto responds as the count is led away: “No, vecchio, t’inganni… un vindice avrai. Si, vendetta, tremenda vendetta” – “No, old man, you’re wrong… You shall be avenged. Yes, revenge, a terrible revenge” Despite Gilda’s pleas to forgive the faithless duke, Rigoletto rages his intention for vengeance: “Come fulmin scagliato da Dio, te colpire il buffone saprà.” – “Like a thunderbolt from God’s hand, the jester’s revenge shall strike you down.” Leonard Warren & Bidu Sayào bring Act II to a passionate close.

Act III opens with Rigoletto & Gilda outside the ramshackle tavern through whose tattered walls Sparafucile can be seen sitting at a table. Gilda assures her father that she still loves the duke, & believes she always will. Rigoletto asks if she would feel the same if she knew of his perfidy, but her response is that she knows he loves her. “Ebben, osserva dunque” – “Well then, just watch”, he says, taking her to look into the tavern.

To Gilda’s surprise, the duke enters & approaches Sparafucile, demanding some wine & a room. As the assassin leaves the room, the duke breaks into what is surely one of the most famous & beloved of all operatic arias, La donna è mobile qual piuma al vento,” “Woman is as fickle as a feather in the breeze,” summing up his libertine character, & devastating Gilda.

At a signal, Sparafucile summons his buxom sister Maddalena, who playfully averts the duke’s attempts to kiss her. The assassin slips outside & quietly confers with the jester about the fate of the duke, while Gilda realizes that her beloved is a deceiver, & inside Maddalena jokingly brands him a libertine. The two continue light-hearted banter, but Gilda at last acknowledges in reply to Rigoletto’s query “E non ti basta ancor?” -“Haven’t you seen enough?” that the duke is indeed a wicked deceiver.

There follows one of the most famous ensembles in opera – the Rigoletto quartet – a marvelous blending of voices & melodies, & a powerful mix of emotions. The quartet is known by the duke’s first line: Bella figlia dell’amore” – “Beautiful daughter of love”, as he turns the charm full force on Maddalena, who responds with derisive laughter, all the while teasingly urging him on. Then we hear Gilda’s tortured realization that the scoundrel once used these same words with her, & finally Rigoletto joins in, advising his grieving daughter that it does no good to weep over this libertine. Recorded countless times since the beginning of recorded music in the first decade of the 20th Century by a multitude of greats beginning with Enrico Caruso & Amelita Galli-Curci, this rendition features Leonard Warren, Bidu Sayào, Jussi Björling, & Martha Lipton.

Rigoletto, satisfied that Gilda is over the charming lies of the duke, tells her that she should dress in men’s clothing & ride to Verona. He’ll meet her there once he’s dealt with the duke. When she hesitates, he says sternly “Va.” – “Go.”

The duke & Maddalena continue their banter as Rigoletto & Sparafucile negotiate the terms of their agreement: ten scudi in advance, ten more on completion, when Rigoletto will retrieve the duke’s corpse at midnight & throw it in the river, despite Sparafucile’s assurance that he could dispose of the body himself. The assassin then asks the victim’s name, at which Rigoletto replies harshly: “Vuoi sapere anche il mio? Egli è Delitto, Punizion son io.” – “Do you want to know mine also? He is Crime, I am Punishment.” A storm approaches – the sky gets dark, & lightning flashes.

Sparafucile offers his room to the duke for the night. When Maddalena indicates that she too has fallen to the duke’s charms, & is hesitant to see him killed, her brother points out that he’s worth 20 gold scudi dead. Still she tells Sparafucile how much she regrets losing such a handsome, charming young man, while upstairs the duke can be heard reprising La donna è mobile as he drifts off to sleep.

The storm draws closer; thunder & lightning become more frequent, & a chorus wails the sound of wind in the trees. Gilda, in boy’s clothing, has been drawn back to the tavern, arriving in time to hear Maddalena beg her brother to spare the duke & kill Rigoletto instead. “È amabile invero coral giovinotto.” – “This young man is really very attractive.” Sparafucile stands on the honor among thieves; he’d never cheat a client, & so must kill the duke. Maddalena suggests another plan: if someone else were to arrive before midnight, they can kill him instead, putting his body in the sack for Rigoletto to collect, & sparing the duke. While unlikely on such a stormy night, the assassin reluctantly agrees.

Gilda, horrified by these immoral people, still is moved that Maddalena wants to save the duke, & decides to present herself at the door as the sacrificial victim to save him. Begging her father’s forgiveness for what she is about to do, & with a wish that the duke will live happily on, she knocks on the door, announcing herself as a poor beggar seeking refuge from the storm. Saying to herself “Dio! Loro perdonate!” – “God! Forgive them!” she enters as the full fury of the storm breaks. During the frequent bright flashes of lightning, the otherwise dark tavern reveals Gilda being stabbed, her cry heard above the wind & rain, & then the two murderers stuffing her into a sack to be ready for their client Rigoletto’s return. The intensity of the storm lessens, passing into the distance. Now there are only occasional gusts of wind & distant flashes of lightning as midnight approaches.

This dramatic trio of love, death, & money is a masterful example of Verdi’s skill as a composer, featuring one of the most remarkable musical renditions of a storm. In this fine recording, we hear mezzo-soprano Giulietta Simionato as Maddalena, bass Cesare Siepi as Sparafucile, & soprano Hilde Güden as Gilda.

Rigoletto approaches the tavern a bit before midnight, waiting outside with eager anticipation of his final vengeance. “Qual notte di mistero! Una tempesta in cielo, in terra un omicidio! Oh, come invero qui grande mi sento!” – “What a mysterious night! A tempest in the heavens, a murder on earth! Oh, how great I now feel!

The clock chimes the hour, & Sparafucile comes out. He tells Rigoletto to wait & re-enters, then comes back out with the heavy sack, saying bluntly; “È qua spento il vostro’uomo.”“Here is your man, dead.” Rigoletto eagerly asks for a light, but Sparafucile quickly responds that rather than a light, there needs to be gold. The jester gives him a purse. When Rigoletto refuses Sparafucile’s help in disposing of the body, the assassin wishes him a brusque goodnight & goes back into the tavern, locking the door behind him.

First wanting to look in triumph at the duke’s corpse, Rigoletto decides against it, noting that it’s definitely him – he can feel his spurs. He starts dragging the sack toward the river when he is shocked to hear the duke, alive & well, once more singing his theme, “La donna è mobile” – “Woman is fickle”. In desperation, he curses the assassin as he cuts open the sack, & a flash of lightning reveals Gilda, not the duke. He pounds on the tavern door with no result, then kneels by his daughter, desperately calling her name.

Gilda answers weakly “Ah, padre mio!” – “Ah, my father!” He asks her who wounded her, & she replies: “V’ho ingannato… colpevole fui… L’ammai troppo… Ora mullion per lui!” – “I deceived you… I was guilty… I loved him too much… now I die for him!” Horrified, Rigoletto realizes “Ella stessa fu colta dallo stral di mia giusta vendetta!” – “She was struck by the bolt that I released in righteous vengeance!” He begs her not to die, not to leave him, but she asks for him to bless her, & she will pray for him in heaven alongside her long-dead mother. Gilda slips peacefully away, & Rigoletto, totally distraught, in an anguished, tragic reprise of the ending of Act I, he cries out as he collapses senseless on her body: “Gilda! mia Gilda! È morta! Ah, la maledizione! – Gilda! My Gilda! She is dead! Ah, the curse!” Leonard Warren & Bidu Sayão give us an outstanding conclusion to Verdi’s great opera in this final, tragic duet.

For those who want to follow the action of this opera in its entirety, there are some excellent filmed or televised versions available. One of the best in my opinion is the Great Performances production from PBS, televised live on location in Mantua, starring the great Spanish tenor Placido Domingo in the baritone role of Rigoletto, with a superb cast, including Julia Novikova as Gilda, Vittorio Grigolo as the duke, & Ruggero Raimondi as Sparafucile. Zubin Mehta conducted the RAI National Symphony Orchestra.

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