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Boston Lyric Opera's Version of Rigoletto

Mar 12, 2014 2:00:00 PM
By BLO Staff

by
Magda Romanska, Ph.D., Boston Lyric Opera Dramaturg
BLO’s
version of Rigoletto returns the opera to its original historical
context. The dramatic structure of the story is framed by two necessary
conditions: the world in which a ruler has absolute power over life and death,
and a world in which the curse of a father is to be believed and feared. Verdi
was convinced that for the plot to make sense the Duke must be a lecher with
power and without conscience. “The Duke must absolutely be a libertine; without
that there can be no justification for Rigoletto's fear of his daughter’s leaving,”
Verdi wrote in a letter to a friend. Moving the production from Paris to a
smaller city in Italy, Verdi reinforced the idea of a claustrophobic space
where no one can escape the fickle will of its ruler. The Duke, although acting
without concern or remorse, is never punished, and this lack of poetic justice
illuminates the city’s distorted moral code. 
 
Our
production captures metaphorically that idea of the city of Mantua, a place
enclosed by the dark brick wall that illustrates its hidden, unscrupulous, dark
side. Chronologically, the plot moves back and forth between the open, public
place of the Duke’s court to the secret spaces of the city's underworld:
Rigoletto’s house, where he hides away his daughter, and the tavern where he
plots the Duke’s assassination. Likewise, our production uses a divided stage
to represent the two opposing realms of Mantua’s society, the public world of
the Duke’s omnipotent decadence and the private, hidden realm of intimate
affairs, which nonetheless remains in his powerful, omnipresent grip. Above the
dark brick wall, we see the model of a city made of white marble. The model is
based on a painting by Piero della Francesca (1415–92) of an ideal city, a
common theme of the Renaissance era. In the painting everything is spotless,
open, and transparent. The model hovers over a dark pit in which the human
passions of love, lust, and revenge fuel the workings of the real city. The
divided stage also represents the two sides of Rigoletto: the ugly, vicious
face he dons at court, and the gentle, loving side he shows to his daughter.
The image of Rigoletto’s two faces, grotesque and tender, follows Verdi’s
intention: “To me there is something really fine in representing on stage this
character outwardly so ugly and ridiculous, inwardly so impassioned and full of
love,” Verdi wrote about the jester.
 
The
second necessary component of the dramatic structure of Verdi’s opera is the
impact and power of the father’s curse on the Duke and Rigoletto. The curse is
thrown by a courtier whose daughter was abducted and seduced by the Duke, with
Rigoletto goading him on. When defending his play to the censors, Victor Hugo
wrote, 
 
This
father whose daughter has been taken from him by the king is mocked and
insulted by Triboulet. The father raises his arms and curses Triboulet. The
whole play evolves from this. The true subject of the drama is the curse of
Monsieur de St-Vallier. Now observe; we are in the second act. On whom has this
curse fallen? On Triboulet the king’s buffoon? No, on Triboulet the man, who is
a father, who has a heart, and a daughter. He has nothing else but his daughter
in the whole world.
 
Verdi
follows Hugo’s concept, making the father’s curse on Rigoletto the central
pillar of the story. The original title of Rigoletto was, in fact, The
Curse
( La Maledizione), and Verdi believed that the curse is the
axis around which the entire dramatic arc of the story revolves. “The whole
subject lives in that curse,” he wrote in a letter to his librettist, Francesco
Maria Piave, while the two were writing the opera. When under the threat of the
censor the text of the opera was reworked, a revision that undermined the power
of the curse, Verdi penned an impassioned letter to C.D. Marzari, the president
of the Teatro la Fenice, who had ordered the rewrites: “The old man’s curse, so
awesome and sublime in the original, here becomes ridiculous because the motive
that drives him to curse no longer has the same importance ... Without this
curse, what purpose, what meaning does the drama have?” Being himself a father,
and remembering the time he spent with his daughter’s mother as the only
happiness he has ever known, Rigoletto is horrified when another father on whom
he has inflicted unsurpassed misery has cursed him with all his heart. The
curse is a turning point for Rigoletto, a moment in which he begins
to unravel. Thus, our set represents Rigoletto’s breakdown. The erotic
Italian-style painting on the wall depicts Venus and Mars, one of the
most sumptuous subjects of Western mythology. In our production, however,
the painting is not straightforward; it is broken, fractured—like Rigoletto
himself. In order for the curse to remain the turning point of the story, to
assert its impact on poor Rigoletto, it has to live in the world in which it is
believable and authentic, and such was the original world of Verdi’s powerful
opera.
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