“Rigoletto”, the Sad Story of a Jester

“La ra, la ra, la la, la ra, la ra,” – is it possible to express deep feelings with the aid of such primitive words?

Read my article about the opera Rigoletto and listen to its key fragments. Perhaps, you’ll soon be crying over this ridiculous “la ra”.

Triboulet Turns into Rigoletto

In 1850, Teatro La Fenice commissioned Giuseppe Verdi to compose a new opera. Verdi himself could choose the subject for it: he was already respected enough to afford some creative freedom. The play Le Roi s’amuse (The King has Fun) by Victor Hugo caught his attention.

Its key figures were Francis I and the court jester, the hunchback Triboulet. In the play, Francis I wasn’t a very complicated person, he was no more than a deprived womanizer constantly looking for sensual pleasures, but the jester… As Hugo wrote in the preface to Le Roi s’amuse, Triboulet “hates the king because he is king; hates the nobles because they are nobles and hates men because they don’t all have a hunchback (…) he corrupts the king and brutalizes him, urging him on to tyranny, ignorance and vice, dragging him through the gentlemen’s families, pointing out a woman to seduce, a sister to kidnap, a girl to dishonor”.

Impressed with Hugo’s character, Verdi exclaimed (1):

Oh, “Le Roi’s amuse” is the greatest subject and perhaps the greatest drama of modern times! Triboulet is a creation worthy of Shakespeare!

Alas, there was a problem – censorship. Giuseppe Verdi clearly knew that the government censors wouldn’t let Teatro La Fenice stage the opera portraying a real monarch in a bad light.

Verdi requested the assistance of the talented librettist Francesco Maria Piave, and they started to edit the text little by little so that not to enrage the censors and not destroy the multifaceted image of jester at the same time.

Triboulet turned into Rigoletto. The king became a duke. The place of action was changed… Eventually, the composer and the librettist managed to achieve their goal.

The Jester’s Two Lives

At the beginning of the play, we are at a ball that Duke of Mantua is hosting in his splendid palace. The Duke doesn’t look repulsive; he is a handsome and cheerful young man. He seems to have the only serious weakness – for bonny women. Talking to a courtier, Borsa, the Duke mentions an unknown beauty he often sees in church. The young man has discovered where the girl lives and desires to conquer her.

Vicious Court Wit

Despite his passion for the beauty from the church, the Duke flirts with another belle, Countess Ceprano. The countess’s husband witnesses the scene. He is insulted, but what can he do? The Duke’s deed may have gone almost unnoticed by the rest of the guests if old hunchback Rigoletto hadn’t intervened. Rigoletto mercilessly mocks the jealousy of the future cuckold. How nasty the jester is! He’s hopelessly deformed, both physically and morally!

All the courtiers laugh at the upset Count.  Suddenly, the merriment is interrupted. A nobleman named Monterrone enters the hall. The Duke had dishonored Monterrone’s daughter with the jester’s encouragement, and the outraged nobleman wants to speak to them. The hunchback mocks this grief, too.  In despair, Monterrone curses the Duke and the jester.

The curse surprisingly terrifies Rigoletto. He is not as insensitive as we thought.

Gentle Loving Father

Preoccupied with forebodings, the court wit goes home. We guess why Monterrone’s words touched a raw nerve: Rigoletto is also a father.

Many years ago, he was happy; a kind woman sincerely loved him. She died, yet their daughter, Gilda, is alive and well. “This flower” is the old jester’s last consolation. Lovely Gilda adores her father.

Rigoletto says nothing about his court life to the girl. He’s a jester, but not a fool. The hunchback understands the court is a nest of vipers, the Duke is sybaritic profligate, and he, the Duke’s servant, is a spiteful freak lampooning each and every one.

The jester wants to hide his innocent daughter from the dirty reality. He forbids Gilda to leave their house’s yard, except to go to the church.

Gilda obeys her father. Nevertheless, even the church is a part of the real world with its sweet temptations. There, the girl has already noticed an attractive young man admiringly looking at her. She falls in love with him.

Gilda is unaware that the handsome stranger is the Duke. Rigoletto’s daughter is the very same girl the Duke was talking about at the ball.

Courtiers Have Fun

When Rigoletto has left the house, the Duke appears. Having introduced himself as a modest student, he declares his love to Gilda. The embarrassed girl admits that theyoung man’s feelings are mutual. After their first innocent date, happy Gilda sings on the balcony.

Meanwhile, the courtiers secretly observe her. They suppose Rigoletto took a mistress and plot to play a trick on the pesky jester.

The conspirators wait for the hunchback’s return, then their leader, Marullo, asks the jester to help them – the courtiers are allegedly going to abduct Countess Ceprano for the Duke. Rigoletto believes them: Ceprano’s palace is located just in the neighborhood. They mask Rigoletto with a blindfold. Directed by his enemies, he holds the ladder to his own house. The courtiers climb up the ladder, drag out Gilda and bring her to their lord’s palace. Though the Duke didn’t plan to kidnap Gilda, he’ll probably be glad to meet her in his own bedroom…

Rigoletto finds out himself alone and tears off the blindfold. Noticing a familiar scarf on the ground, the jester comes to the realization of what he had just done: he helped to abduct his own daughter…

Poor Rigoletto

The next scene unfolds in the Duke’s palace. All the courtiers – Borsa, Marullo, Ceprano – are there. They are looking forward to some great entertainment.  “Poor Rigoletto!” – Marullo scoffs.

The hunchback’s coming in. The violins play a dotted motif imitating his abnormal gait, and he takes up: “La ra, la ra, la la…”. His song is frightening. It’s senseless – senseless, like the false court, the false world, and the jester’s life itself after he has lost everything.

Ceprano asks sneeringly, “What news, jester?”

“What news, jester? – Rigoletto automatically mimics. – Only that you are more bored than usual.” The character, who disgusted us at the beginning of the opera, is now very sympathetic. The wretched old man tries to feign nonchalance and be snarky, but can’t. He’ll never put on a mask again.

In the scene, we comprehend the true evil is not the womanizing Duke or the mocking Rigoletto, the true evil is the crowd of the sneaky courtiers. They are meek while their enemy is powerful, and bold if their foe is defenseless. Rigoletto poses no danger – his sharp tongue won’t save him this time.

The hunchback asks whether the Duke is in the palace. The courtiers state that he’s sleeping. In a minute, a page enters: he has a message for the Duke from the Duchess. The page gets completely another answer about the lord’s whereabouts: he is out hunting.

Rigoletto realizes the Duke is in the palace with Gilda. Perhaps they are just behind the door the courtiers are standing in front of.

From Accusation to Flattery

The famous aria Cortigiani, vil razza dannata (Courtiers, vile, damnable rabble, in translation) begins.  Obsessed with desperate hope, the jester attempts to run into the room. The courtiers block his way. Rigoletto is openly attacking them: “Give her back … or this hand, though unarmed, will prove a dread weapon indeed. A man will fear nothing on earth when defending his children’s honor. Assassins, open that door!”

They roughly push the old hunchback away. He feels trapped and gives up.

The exuberant, fitful music, full of tragic pathos, is slowing down, but remains tense. We hear the jester’s heart pounding in its rhythm. Exhausted, Rigoletto on his knees begs the forgiveness of those who ruined his life, “Lords, forgive me… Give me my daughter back.” He is ready to grovel, flatter, do anything.

Performing this aria is a challenging task; the singer needs to have an expressive voice and outstanding acting abilities. Nevertheless, there were many persuasive Rigolettos. In the recordings above, Sherrill Milnes performs this part very well.

I also recommend listening to Tito Gobbi; he is my favorite jester. Here is a clip of the old movie opera with him (1946):

If you’re not accustomed to black and white films, look for the brilliant color film shot in 1983 – Ingvar Wixel brilliantly starred in it. The great thing about the latter movie is that Luciano Pavarotti plays the Duke.

So, the jester begs the courtiers to open the door of the room where his kidnapped daughter is hidden. What happens after that, I won’t tell you – it would be a pity to spoil the ending. Rigoletto is one of the few operas you can watch not only as a serious classical piece, but also as a gripping thriller.

I am envious of those who are going to watch Rigoletto for the first time…

  1. Rigoletto Opera Guide – Alma Books Ltd., 2017
  2. Verdi: A Documentary Study – William Weaver, Thames and Hudson, London, 1977
  3. The Worlds of Rigoletto: Verdi’s Development of the Title Role in Rigoletto – Mark D. Walters, The Florida State University College of Music,  2008
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Natalia Usanova
I am a poet and an amateur artist. A few years ago, it seemed to me creating works of art is a much more important occupation than reading books, visiting galleries, or listening to music. Now I don't think so. Let me share with you the masterpieces which have changed my life and can change yours. Follow me on Twitter!

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