Magda Romanska, BLO Dramaturg and visiting associate professor at Harvard University, talks to Professor David Rosen about Verdi’s Rigoletto. Professor Rosen is a world-renowned musicologist, a leading expert on Verdi, and professor emeritus of Music at Cornell University. Professor Rosen was responsible for the critical edition of Verdi’s Messa da Requiem (published in The Works of Giuseppe Verdi) and the Cambridge Music Handbook on Verdi’s requiem. He also coauthored a volume dedicated to the disposizione scenica of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera. Professor Rosen discovered in the Paris Bibliothèque de l’Opéra a passage in Verdi’s manuscript score for Don Carlos which had had to be cut in order to ensure that the opera’s premiere would finish before midnight. Professor Rosen was one of the first scholars to study the contemporary staging manuals (disposizioni sceniche or livrets de mise en scène) and other sources that help us reconstruct the visual aspects of 19th-century opera.
MR: One of the essential themes of Victor Hugo’s Le Roi s’Amuse (The King Amuses Himself), and Verdi’s Rigoletto is the father’s curse. As Victor Hugo’s put it: “[M. de Saint-Vallier—Monterone in Verdi’s opera], from whom the king has taken his daughter, is jeered at and insulted by Triboulet [Rigoletto]. The father raises his arm and curses Triboulet. From that [action] the entire play develops. The real subject of the drama is the curse of M. de Saint-Vallier.” Can you tell us how the curse functions in Hugo’s play, and in Verdi’s opera? How it is framed by the musical structure of the opera?
DR: There are two different recurring passages of music associated with the curse: a meditative brooding one, and one expressed in a thunderclap of recognition when the curse strikes home. The music associated with the meditative version is the first thing heard in the opera: a solo trumpet and trombone intone the rhythm of the phrase “Quel vecchio maledivami” (“That old man cursed me”), leading into a striking harmonic progression. As in act 2 of the play, Rigoletto recalls the curse – “that old man cursed me” – four times in the second tableau of act 1: before his duet with Sparafucile, twice in the extended recitative monologue that follows, and again at the beginning of the finale that culminates in the abduction of his daughter, Gilda. These are the last appearances of the meditative curse theme in the opera.
When Rigoletto realizes that the courtiers have abducted not Ceprano’s wife but his own daughter, he tears his hair, then cries, “Ah!…la maledizione!!” (“La malediction!” in the play) to a harshly dissonant cadence in the minor mode, and he faints as the lowest instruments in the orchestra furiously play rapid descending chromatic scales.
In the theater most curses unfailingly strike their mark, but at the end of act 2 of Verdi’s opera, Monterone, led off to prison, stops to address a portrait of the Duke: “Since you were cursed by me in vain, no thunderbolt or blade striking your breast, you will live happily yet, O Duke.” Rigoletto responds, “No, old man, you are wrong… You will have an avenger.” (The situation comes straight from the play, although in the opera, as with the initial curse in act 1, rather than ending the act the line triggers a concluding operatic “number,” here the cabaletta of the Gilda/Rigoletto duet.) By undoing our expectations that the curse on the Duke will be fulfilled, Monterone has in effect canceled that curse. And Rigoletto seems to be confident at this point that Monterone’s curse upon him has already been fulfilled by the abduction and seduction of his daughter; however, as Hugo says in his preface, “[Triboulet’s] punishment does not stop halfway.”
MR: How does the ending of Rigoletto compare to Verdi’s other operas, and how should we read it?
DR: The end of the opera follows a three-stage procedure that Verdi used in many of his operas. The initial stage prepares the death scene, either by inflicting the mortal wound or by announcing that the designated victim is dying from poison or – in La Traviata – disease. The second stage is a slow set piece in which the victim dies, surrounded by grieving friends, relatives, and perhaps even former enemies. These ensembles are consolatory, and the death agony is hardly ever disturbed by any expression of rancor or gloating. They are typically in keys with many flats (five in Rigoletto) and are either in the major mode throughout, or, as in the case of Rigoletto, begin in the minor mode but soon move to the major mode. In the third stage, after the character dies, there is a sudden turn to the minor mode and a fast tempo unfolding the final cadence in a single span. This often encompasses a further dramatic event, perhaps the death of a second principal character, the tenor (as in Il Corsaro, Luisa Miller, Il Trovatore); or a revelation embodied in a “punch line,”; such as Azucena’s “Egli era tuo fratello!” informing the Count that he has just executed his own brother in Il Trovatore, or in Rigoletto, of course, “Ah! la maledizione!”
In Rigoletto, the ending is connected to the curse; it is its natural resolution, supported by the music. Both the staging – Rigoletto tears his hair and falls, now on Gilda’s body – and the music – the same harmonic progression and descending chromatic scales in the same scoring as before – clearly link this moment with Rigoletto’s recollection of the curse occasioned by Gilda’s abduction precisely two acts earlier. Indeed, in Verdi’s sketches the vocal line in the two passages was identical as well (mi – re – do), though in the final version he adjusted the first of the two passages, perhaps to bring it down to a more comfortable range for the baritone. In the opera, then, the music, text, and staging all collude in representing Gilda’s abduction and, later, her death as parallel fulfillment of the curse.
MR: What is the major difference between Victor Hugo’s treatment of the ending and the curse in his play, and Verdi’s Rigoletto? What is at stake in their different versions?
DR: In Hugo’s play, after a doctor has coldly pronounced Blanche dead, Triboulet does not recall the curse but closes the play on the line “J’ai tué mon enfant! J’ai tué mon enfant!” [I killed my child!] If “the real subject of the drama is the curse of M. de Saint-Vallier,” why does Hugo fail to refer to it here? There are psychological, even moral issues at stake here. Rigoletto views the curse as an external, almost random, force, rather like Monterone’s thunderbolt or blade that has struck him because of the curse. True enough, Verdi and Piave do follow the play in giving Rigoletto the line, “She herself was struck by the arrow of my just revenge [giusta vendetta]” (a line the Roman censors, when the opera was performed there, altered to “stupid revenge” [stolta vendetta] in an attempt to impart some sense of remorse to the character and to characterize “vendetta” negatively). But Rigoletto never realizes that it is through his own misdeeds that Monterone’s curse takes effect. Rigoletto himself became the author of his own punishment: his attempt to abduct Ceprano’s wife brought about the abduction of his daughter, his attempt to kill the Duke, her death. Through a comforting moral blindness Rigoletto is spared that cruel realization that crushes Triboulet at the end of Hugo’s tragedy. Rigoletto never comes to acknowledge that he himself, not an impersonal force impelled by the curse, is the direct cause of his daughter’s death. One might criticize the opera for its failure to compel Rigoletto to accept responsibility for the consequences of his actions, for supporting his comfortable view that he is the passive victim of Monterone’s curse. But another critical move is available: to claim that the opera reveals and diagnoses Rigoletto’s moral blindness, without endorsing it.