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.