In the Wings

Backstage glimpses with Boston Lyric Opera

Censorship and Subversion: the Verdi and Piave Rigoletto

Mar 20, 2014 1:59:00 PM
By BLO Staff

Kevin Galiè, Ben Gebo Photography  

On February 13,
Boston Lyric Opera partnered with the
French Cultural Center and Dante Alighieri Society of Massachusetts to present Le Roi s’Amuse and
Rigoletto: How Hugo and Verdi Shocked the Censors.  Coro Dante conductor, Kevin
Galiè presented a lecture on Victor Hugo’s and Verdi’s struggle against censorship
in their respective works about the tragic court jester set in the decadent
courts of French and Italian royalty, respectively.  French Cultural Center actors Mark Leuning
and Suzanne Pergal performed scenes in French from Hugo’s original play
Roi s’Amuse and BLO Artists Maggie
Finnegan, Omar Najmi, and James Myers performed the equivalent scenes and arias
from Verdi’s
Rigoletto.  The side-by-side scene performances showcased
how each interpretation critiqued the governmental powers in question.

Kevin Galiè joins In the Wings to share more about Verdi and Piave’s
subversion of Austrian censors before the premiere of
Rigoletto.  For
more production history on
Rigoletto ,
here .

When Rigoletto
premiered in 1851, Italy was only nine short years away from its Risorgimento – its great civil war of
unification – which ironically happened at the same time as the American Civil
War (1860-65). In the censorship of Rigoletto,
it’s possible that Verdi and Piave were only driven to put in even more
esoteric and subtle references and incitements to the current state of the
peoples of the Italian peninsula.  There was
no “country” at the time – Italy was a series of kingdoms, including the
Vatican papal states that were all of central Italy.

Verdi had many censors, including the French, the
Austrians, the Italians, and the Pope.  Verdi,
in turn censored his librettist, Francesco Maria Piave, always asking for fewer
words.  Victor Hugo – who wrote the play Le Roi s’Amuse, upon which Rigoletto was based – was looking to
ridicule with farce and mockery.  Hugo’s
King is modeled after Francis the First (c. 1520), but France’s king in 1832,
when Le Roi s’Amuse was premiered,
was Louis-Phillippe, and his administration took direct offense.  Famously, Le
Roi s’Amuse
was suppressed in 1832, two years after the 1830 French Charter
of Abolition of Censorship, which stated: “The French have the right to
publish; censorship must never be re-established.”  Piave and Verdi were looking to ridicule with
cutting tragedy and no-holds-barred obscenity and obscene inference.  Their Duke is modeled after Vincenzo Gonzaga
(1562-1612), the Duke of Mantua.

The Austrian censor De Gorzkowski in December of
1850 referred to Piave’s libretto as “a repugnant immorality and obscene
triviality.”  In his article “Due facce di Rigoletto,” Michele Girardi
names six points of agreement for the censors, described as “Catolicissimi.”

action of the drama must be transported from the French court to an independent
ducal of Bourgogne, Normandy, or a small Italian principality in the Farnese
original character types of Hugo may be conserved, changing the names according
to the situation of the time period.
scene must be avoided in which Francis I, king of France, (in Rigoletto, the Duke of Bourgogne)
declares resolutely to profit from the key to Gilda’s room.  Another scene must be substituted, conserving
decency without diminishing the interest of the drama.
the lovers’ meeting in the tavern, the Duke arrives because of a trick, not
intentionally.  The hunchback Triboulet
is renamed Rigoletto, and the opera is renamed Rigoletto.
the appearance of the sack containing the daughter of Rigoletto, Verdi is
allowed to make whatever modifications necessary.
the above modifications, Verdi doesn’t need to open the opera before February 28
or March 1 (a tight window before Ash Wednesday, 1851).

Piave and Verdi were censored, but it backfired. By
a deft rewriting of allusion, inference, and metaphor, they created an opera
that the Italian native-speakers would “get” (a message that the Risorgimento was coming and here are the
reasons), but that would go right over the heads of the occupying “German-speakers.”

I can’t presume to know what exactly was in Verdi’s and
Piave’s minds when they had to deal with the censors and telling this story, but
being both a musician and an Italian speaker, living there four months a year
has given me a chance to crawl inside the Verdian-Italian mentality, albeit 150
years later, and to understand the very subtle shades of meaning I believe lie
in this redacted, changed, partially butchered version of Piave’s original. In
short, I believe the Hugo play was a straight-out farce criticizing the King of
France, while in their version Piave and Verdi were forced to make lemonade
when given the lemons of censorship. There are many fantastically key moments
in this opera that are only fleetingly alluded to, or that happen only by
deduction or inference.

Suzanne Pergal (Blanche) and Mark Leuning (Le Roi)
Maggie Finnegan (Gilda) and Omar Najmi (The Duke)
at the French Cultural Center
Ben Gebo Photography for Boston Lyric Opera

Piave’s libretto wastes no time. Instead of drawing
the audience gradually into the action, as does Hugo’s Le Roi s’Amuse, at every turn from beginning to end Piave gets
right to the obscene, scathing review of nobility. Verdi does the same, opening
the opera by heralding a clean unison C or “do,” on the brass, which is then
polluted by the angry and dirty diminished seventh chord. In fact, the first
two measures of the opera, musically, are a metaphor for the entire work: a
repeated C/”do”—arguably the cleanest, purest note, represented by Gilda, or in
my opinion the Italian character, polluted only by the minority of Italians in
1851 who may have stained the nobility.  Then
the note is crashed, violated, put into a sack by the diminished seventh chord
– the C is in the diminished chord, but at the bottom of the chord – the way
Gilda ends up dead in a sack.  And the
Italian people end up under the yoke of Austria (with the Vatican in the
middle, and the Kingdom of the two Sicilys in the south).  This musical ability to paint the action is
not something that can be done in a spoken play; many things that are not said with words in Rigoletto are said with music.

The opera is full of double meanings and
outrageously obscene references – almost too much to be mentioned here.  It is impossible to know completely how these
phrases fell upon the patriotically inclined Italian in 1851; I think they were
just subtle enough for the Austrian bilingual listeners to understand them, but
for the Italian listeners to feel them strike their hearts and ring the bell of
the coming unification.

Boston Opera Calendar

Subscribe to Email Updates


Posts by Date

see all