Verdi’s battle over censorship of his revolutionary opera

Verdi’s Rigoletto Premiere, Venice, March 11, 1851

Since its opening at the Teatro La Fenice, Rigoletto has re­mained one of Verdi’s most cele­brated works, a favorite with audiences and critics alike. Even the aged Rossini, who until Rigoletto had withheld his praise, finally acknowledged Verdi’s musical genius. And when the opera opened in Paris, it ran for over 100 performances to packed houses, causing Victor Hugo (au­thor of the opera’s source) no little resentment. But the highest praise came from George Bernard Shaw, a famous music reviewer as well as playwright, who described Rigoletto as “a treasure of art and genius burnt into music.”

But Verdi’s success with Rigoletto did not come without difficulties with government censors, who almost sunk the project. Adapted from Hugo’s play, Le Roi s’amuse, the Aus­trian military censors found the libretto too controversial. [Readers will remember prior to the Italian Risorgimento; northern Italy was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.] Indeed, Hugo’s play had been too strong even for Parisian audiences, who drove it from the stage after only one performance. They considered it licentious and anti-royalist.

Giuseppe Verdi

Verdi was determined to adapt the play to opera. He thought Le Roi s’amuse “a creation worthy of Shakespeare.” So, to comply with the censor’s demands, Verdi agreed to demote King François I to a duke, change the setting from France to Mantua, and delete a bedroom scene he never in­tended to stage. He would not, however, eliminate the sack used for Gilda’s death, an objection the military censor made on purely aesthetic grounds. [Alas, how far we have come from those days of the soldier-scholar-­aesthete.]

“The Censorship”—as Verdi con­temptuously called it—dogged him throughout his career, and for Rigoletto the battle was won only in Austrian-controlled Italy. No sooner was the opera transferred to Rome, Naples, or Palermo than it underwent new censorship tinkering, ludicrously reflected in its many name changes: Viscardello, Lionello, and Clara di Perth, the latter nicely displaying the Italian censors’ penchant for setting all disagreeable stories in Scotland, where anything could happen!

For Verdi, Rigoletto closed his “galley years,” the early chapter of his career when he wrote fif­teen operas in twelve years; more importantly, Rigoletto caused dra­matic changes in Italian opera. To audiences brought up on Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti, Rigoletto was uncon­ventional and full of surprises. For example, from the opening curtain, the Duke’s banter about his amorous affairs seems to prepare us for a light, comic opera; not until Count Monterone enters is there any hint of the opera’s dark side. But once in place, the tragic com­plication is immediately taken up in the music, shunting aside its opening gaiety.

Moreover, Verdi’s revolution­ary changes can be seen in every part of the opera’s musical struc­ture. Reducing show-stopping arias to a minimum, the music is inextricably bound to the drama, everywhere supporting the action and delin­eating character. Gone are the conventional arias that so often exist solely to call attention to themselves and show off the illustrious singers who demanded them, no matter what the dramatic situation required.

By contrast, the Duke and Gilda’s famous arias—”Questa o quella” [This one or that, they’re all the same] and “Caro nome” [Sweet name of my beloved]—are essential to their respective char­acterizations. And the Duke’s “La donna ê mobile” [Women are fickle] adds a bitter touch to the dramatic irony of the last scene. The final strains of this throw-away aria, sung offstage by the careless Duke, provide the chilling backdrop for Rigoletto’s tragic discovery.

Apart from these arias, Rigoletto unfolds musically in a se­ries of duets and dramatic exchanges. Gone are the big en­semble numbers, where princi­pals and chorus plant themselves in static poses, to “tell” us of the drama unfolding; in their place are scenes “enacting” the drama. This is beautifully illustrated in the exchange between Rigoletto and the assassin Sparafucile, as well as in Rigoletto’s concluding “Parisiamo” [How alike we are]. Their encounter employs recitative, duet, and monologue, but no conventional arias to detract from the drama and characteriza­tion Verdi sought.

This extraordinary dramatic technique can be seen everywhere in Rigoletto, but its most pow­erful illustration is in the opening scene of Act II, where Rigoletto searches for evidence of Gilda at Court. At first brusque with the courtiers, he is soon reduced to pleading, then finally condemns them—”Cortigiani, vil razza dannata” [Vile, damned courtiers]. In this moving exchange, the music for Rigoletto and chorus departs completely from anything Italian opera had seen before, fluctuating between recitative and arioso to create this powerful scene.

By thrusting drama into the forefront, Rigoletto became the central piece in Verdi’s opera revolution. With it he changed opera from a singer’s showpiece to an integrated drama, one that demands all elements work together. And, as if such radical changes were not enough, never before had such a subject ap­peared in opera. Only Verdi would consider using a deformed—both physically and morally—jester as his central character; but for Verdi, Rigoletto was a new kind of tragic figure, “outwardly ridiculous and de­formed, yet inwardly filled with passion and love.”

The story of this pitiful jester, condemned to his hateful role (played, alas, all too skillfully) represents a new direction in opera. And after Rigoletto, the place of music in opera was so altered, the Italian musical stage would never be the same. And in his own operas from 1851 on—La Traviata, Simon Boccanegra, Un Ballo in Maschera, Otello and Falstaff—Verdi continued to build on the revolutionary changes Rigoletto intro­duced, and the composers who followed have been forever in his debt.


by Gilbert R. Davis

Dr. Davis has contributed notes for Opera Grand Rapids’ productions for over 35 years.

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