Visit BLO.org

In the Wings

Backstage glimpses with Boston Lyric Opera

Production History of Rigoletto

Mar 10, 2014 4:48:00 PM
By BLO Staff

by Magda Romanska, Ph.D., Boston Lyric Opera
Dramaturg
Verdi’s  Rigoletto is based on Victor Hugo’s
1832 play  Le Roi S’amuse ( The King Amuses Himself), which
centers on the excesses of a cynical and ruthless king who revels in the cruel
treatment of his courtiers, particularly his jester. The play was meant to
depict the story of Francis I of France (1494–1547) and his famous jester
Triboulet; however, the censors believed that it mocked France’s current king,
Louis-Philippe (1773–1850), and thus banned it after just one performance. In
response, Hugo sued the Théâtre Français, a move that turned him into a
celebrity, a defender of freedom of speech in France. Unfortunately, he lost
the suit and the play was banned for another 50 years. To avoid Hugo’s
perturbations with censors, Verdi moved the play to Mantua, and changed the
king to a duke. He also changed the title of the opera to  La
Maledizione
 ( The Curse) and eventually changed it again,
to  Rigoletto. Both titles shifted the focus of the story from the
depravity of the master to the drama of his jester. The plot now focused on the
tragic story of Rigoletto, who is trapped in an impossible predicament and who
eventually suffers one of man’s most horrid fates.
 
When  Rigoletto premiered in Italy in March
1851 at the Teatro la Fenice in Venice, the critical and popular response was
largely negative on account of the opera’s seeming “lack of morality”—a virginal
girl is seduced by a serial womanizer, whose life she saves by sacrificing her
own, leaving her grieving and crippled father in despair while the lecherous
villain walks away unscathed and unpunished. The lack of poetic justice at the
end of the story didn’t prevent the audiences from enjoying Verdi’s music,
however, and the opera quickly overcame its initial setbacks. By 1852  Rigoletto was
showing in all major Italian cities, and soon enough it was performed all over
the world, from Alexandria to Constantinople to Montevideo.
 
In the United States, the reception of  Rigoletto was
also not without stumbles, as audiences’ and critics’ distaste for what they
perceived to be the story’s amoral message seemed at first insurmountable. When
the opera premiered on February 19, 1855, at New York’s Academy of Music,  Albion,
the influential weekly journal, wrote that “rumors prejudicial to the morals
of  Rigoletto had been most freely circulated throughout the
city, inducing many who would otherwise gladly have heard the new opera, to
bide their time until the press should have pronounced its dictum upon the
nature of the plot.” After the opening, the critics weren’t much kinder, one
calling it “not one of Verdi’s best.” The  Times noted that
“there is no justice, poetic or otherwise; nothing but horrors, horrors.”
Following the reviews, the audiences dwindled, and the show was closed after
the fifth performance.
 
Despite these initial setbacks, however, as in Italy, people
in the United States eventually accepted the ethical implications of the plot
and began enjoying the music. The 1861 revival in New York City brought some
accolades, with the  Herald calling  Rigoletto “one
of Verdi’s very best works—never sufficiently appreciated here.” The  Sunday
Mercury
, however, called it “immoral” and argued that “no respectable
member of the fair sex could patronize [the opera] without a sacrifice of both
taste and modesty. [. . .] No decent citizen could wish to see it beside his
wife or daughter.” The opera’s producer, Max Meretzek, sued the newspaper for
libel, arguing that the story is not at all immoral because the true villain is
not the Duke but Rigoletto, who is indeed punished at the end of the story.
Meretzek won the suit, and the jury awarded him $1,000 in restitution.
 
Today,  Rigoletto is one of the most often
performed and most beloved operas. In the last two decades, a number of
productions have changed the setting of  Rigoletto: to New York
City’s Little Italy of the 1950s, to  The Planet of the Apes, to
Mussolini’s fascist Italy, and to an Italian casino in 1960s Las Vegas, among
others.
Make a gift today!

Subscribe to Email Updates

2017/2018 Season now on sale!