A night at the opera

Last night, The Girlfriend and I were able to see the Lyric Opera’s production of Verdi’s Rigoletto, thanks to the generosity of a colleague who found himself with extra tickets. Given that I’m going to be teaching the fine arts course (Humanities 1) in the fall, it was particularly auspicious — and so I thought I’d offer up my amateurish thoughts, in the spirit of my post on Cézanne (which was declared “cute” by a commenter at the time).

It’s a bizarre story — Rigoletto, a hunckbacked jester, keeps his daughter, Gilda, under lock and key because his employer, the Duke, is a womanizer/serial rapist. When he’s on the clock, Rigoletto is brutally sarcastic, to the point of openly mocking Count Monterone, an outraged father whose daughter’s virtue has been violated (the production we saw portrays it as a clear case of rape). This father curses both the Duke and Rigoletto, in a moment that Rigoletto takes extremely seriously and continously refers back to. When he visits his daughter, who is only allowed to leave the house to go to church, he claims that he’s a completely different person with her, as she’s the last reminder he has of the exceptional woman who could see past his disability and lowly status and love him.

You can read the rest of the plot summary yourself — things get bizarre very quickly, and just reading it, people’s motivations can seem unclear. But the strangest moment for me is actually a musical one: the duet at the end of act 2 (“Sì! Vendetta, tremenda vendetta!”), where Rigoletto is determined to get revenge against the Duke for violating his daughter’s honor even as Gilda begs him to forgive the Duke. This is a grim and melodramatic scene, yet the music is upbeat and jaunty. As The Girlfriend and I discussed afterward, it sounds more like one of the Duke’s songs than Rigoletto’s. (The Lyric production emphasized this doubling by the use of a rotating stage that made Gilda’s hideout literally the flip side of the Duke’s boudoir.) What is going on?

It’s a commonplace that the womanizer isn’t really in it for the women as such — the Duke’s opening aria (“Questo o quella”) openly claims that any woman will do as well as another — but about the thrill of conquest. In the Duke’s case, there’s the additional element of exerting his power over his subjects, as when he attempts to seduce a nobleman’s wife right in front of him (not without success!) and, more terribly, sentences Count Monterone to death for complaining too loudly about the Duke’s behavior. Rigoletto’s quest for vengeance is a similar power play — up to that point, he’d been claiming that only his daughter (and implicitly the space of normal human affection that she opens up) makes his life meaningful, but in the aria in which he sounds like the Duke, he dedicates his life solely to revenge. The Duke and his court, who have constantly derided Rigoletto, will finally get their just deserts!

This is where Gilda’s bizarre behavior fits in: she has to be against her father’s vengeance to emphasize the fact that it’s not really “about” her. While The Girlfriend and I both saw her character as deeply informed by a sexist worldview, I wonder if there’s something to be retrieved from her decision to very forcefully “opt out” of being a pawn in her father’s nihilistic power play (even to the point of sacrificing her life).

The other musical oddity came in the opera’s most famous aria, “La donna è mobile” (you’ll recognize it instantly). What struck me here is that the song seems to repeatedly stop short and then get moving again, as though it can’t quite find its momentum. Once Gilda has died in the Duke’s place, however, he is able to sing the song to completion, with no hiccups.

Perhaps the halting performance is meant to increase tension, as the Duke’s rakish ways could be coming to an abrupt end at any moment. The Duke doesn’t know that, though. The only thing that could be disrupting the works from his point of view is that he’s met a woman who, by his own account, makes him want to be virtuous (he even ignores the woman in his bed during the aria where he expresses this). The Duke is not the one who abducts Gilda, and it’s not even made explicit that they have sex. Are we to take it that she could have “redeemed” the Duke? That may be too optimistic, but it’s clear that once she’s out of the picture (leaving aside the fact that it takes her about twenty minutes to actually die…), whatever was gumming up the works is gone. (And again, the production emphasized this connection as the rotating stage meant that Gilda’s death took place on the flip side of the room where the Duke was resuming his conquests.)

Again, this is offered in the spirit of amateur reflections. I’m eager to be corrected by any actual opera buffs in the audience.

7 thoughts on “A night at the opera

  1. If I remember correctly, the opera was based on a play by Hugo (called something like Le roi s’muse) and it was actually about a French monarch. Verdi originally set the story in the same time and country but was forced to change it to Duke of Mantua, a remote and harmless non-French monarch.

    For me (if you care) the opera was always about Rigoletto’s tragic fate as a clown who is allowed to speak the truth to power, if you will, but who is ignored, ridiculed and ultimately destroyed (although he, of course, destroys himself – it’s more operatic that way). Duke’s famous aria, as you point out, is a sort of a song of domination and he’s able to finish it once the act of domination is accomplished. The business of Gilda being on his side (and the set you mention) is interesting – she’s clearly not your typical rape victim (in operatic sense, no one is – see even someone like Donna Anna in Don Juan) which is the sign of the times, it seems. She is “seduced” since she’s all locked up and the duke is a handsome fellow who can “save her” – but being locked up before marriage would have been acceptable in the time Verdi is portraying, so it’s not something abnormal. He genuinely falls for the Duke which is why she is defending him – she can’t imagine (yet) that someone would be disingenuous in these sorts of matters.

    The message from the Duke/his noble (and assholish) friends seems to be that Rigoletto is not allowed to have this other gentle good side, he’s physically ugly and so he is a symbol of evil and corruption when in fact, again in a great operatic reversal, it is they who are ultimately evil and corrupt (which is why the political message of both Hugo’s play and Verdi’s original version were so controversial). Physical beauty goes hand in hand with moral degeneration. Gilda, the symbol of purity and innocence, is easily destroyed because she is so pure and innocent. Rigoletto is cunning and cynical but that’s what ultimately gets him as he kills his daughter in an attempt to assassinate the Duke (Sparafucile’s aria is also a gem).

    **For Gilda’s seduction and your reading of it see also this famous essay = “Gilda Seduced – a Tale Untold” by Elizabeth Hudson (Cambridge Opera Journal, 4:3 (1992), 229 – 251.

  2. Sorry for two comments (not everyday one see an opera post) – what do you make of Gilda’s Tutte le feste al tempio aria? Hudson argues that we don’t really know what happened to Gilda at the Duke’s place as there are 3 different stories in Act 2 and Gilda’s story is interrupted by Rigoletto so we never know what really happened. But Tulle le feste has all the evidence that she “fell for” the Duke in his disguise as a “bello e fatale un giovane”…

    Also, is Rigoletto a good father who means well or is he a selfish jerk who keeps his daughter locked up because he’s afraid who won’t have the freedom to mock everyone and everything if people knew he had something to lose?

  3. Mikhail — Thanks for commenting! I thought this was going to sit idle… I like your reading that the Duke et al. are actively depriving Rigoletto of any underlying dignity and forcing him into a position where he has to live up to his appearance — you could read their decision to abduct his “mistress” as of a piece with that.

    On the second comment: that last question is really interesting.

    On the aria you ask about, the production I saw had Gilda girlishly fawn when the Duke claims to be a penniless student, so they agree with you. One would have serious questions, though, about whether she knew what “falling for” someone concretely entailed in terms of sex, etc., given her situation. It’s really interesting that precisely that point — whether the Duke actually “seduced” her in terms of getting her in bed — is left ambiguous. It might be one of the “intrusions” of the historical into the opera, something like what Schmitt talks about in Hamlet or Hecuba. Even after you’ve downgraded the monarch, it’s too risky to show him explicitly victimizing the innocent young thing….

  4. I think a “traditional” sexist interpretation here would imply “they did it” or, which is the say, they were in a room without supervision so the honor is lost and thus she is a bad as violated. You’re right though, there isn’t any explicit reference, but I think everyone understood what was meant. Compare Gilda to Donna Anna that I already mentioned and Tosca. Donna Anna clearly gets raped – Don Juan breaks into her room and so on – and yet later she is “jealous” when he is flirting with someone else, indicating a kind of perverse male fantasy that even though he violated her, the fault is not entirely his because, I don’t know, the window was not shot closed all the way. He has a strange “right” to do what he does. In Tosca we have a woman who can save her lover by sleeping with his jailer (Scarpia) – she would rather kill him than surrender her honor. It’s all very dramatic in Tosca (who is not entirely positive anyway since she’s a kind of super-vigilant jealous lover). Don Juan has a “right” by being a nobleman – Scarpia acquires the right by deceit and manipulation. Duke of Mantua is neither since he does not seduce Gilda as himself but as a Romantic figure of a penniless but passionate student. Gilda falls for an ideal that she, as an innocent young thing, naively believes in. The tragedy is not that Duke gets away with it, or that Gilda is dead (what other options would she have in life?), but that Rigoletto’s immorality (attempted assassination) is still judged to be immoral – he cannot revenge his daughter’s honor with murder, and yet he has no other means.

    Also, is Rigoletto a kind of operatic Oedipus? There is the curse (La maledizione!) and there is a sense that Rigoletto is in the hands of fate but is ultimately innocent of any explicit crime.

    I know this is a pure speculation but I always wondered about Rigoletto’s previous life – why does he have a daughter? He has no wife and no one knows about her so it’s not like he was happily married and his wife died or something. He has a secret child and the opening confrontation with Monterone he is mocking his love for his daughter and yet when cursed gets all shocked (che sento! orrore!)?

    In any case, I feel that I can ramble on and on about this one… Thanks for the post!

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