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.