More than 170 years after its creation, Rigoletto is still considered a revolutionary masterpiece by Giuseppe Verdi. He further consolidated his international reputation as an opera composer par excellence with the following two operas Il trovatore and La traviata. However, a significant and essential step in the direction of a more intense musical drama is evident in Verdi’s own perception of Rigoletto. It was regarded his best work even many years after its premiere on 11 March 1851 at the La Fenice in Venice. In Rigoletto, Verdi abandoned his usual pursuit for pompous sound effects and opted for a more subtle and refined orchestration. As a result, the musical flow, which still reflects a sharp demarcation of vocals and instrumental accompaniment in Verdi’s previous works, is merged into a coherent whole. With this, the orchestra takes an active role in shaping the dramaturgy of opera narrative.
The score itself offers many iconic musical moments, with most notably Gilda’s aria Caro nome, the Duke’s canzone La donna è mobile and the celebrated quartet Un dì, ben rammentomi – Bella figlia dell’amore, while the libretto in verse by Francesco Marie Piave demonstrates notable qualities of psychologically engaged in-depth “reading” of musical drama, which is construed as an irreconcilable triangle between the debauched Duke of Mantua, the hunchbacked court jester Rigoletto and his daughter Gilda, who succumbs to the love charms of the dissolute Duke. The curse on the Duke and Rigoletto, casted by the Count of Monterone, paralleled with the “metaphysics of evil” that affected Verdi’s life in 1839, resulting in the loss of his first wife Margherita Barezzi and their two children Virginia and Icilio, proved to be central – and somewhat autobiographically motivated – mechanism of tragedy in opera. The curse uttered over the Duke and Rigoletto by the Count of Monterone, is, like the idée fixe, embedded in the very backbone of the opera. In his letter to the librettist Piave, Verdi himself wrote: “An unfortunate father who laments the lost honour of his daughter, curses the fool (Rigoletto) who mocks him, and his curse is realized with special violence….”
From the viewpoint of the musical representation of the curse, Verdi uses a reminiscent motif in a recurring chord. The motif is played by trumpet and trombone in the first bars of the opera, then several times again, and finally when Rigoletto finds his dead daughter Gilda in horror. Thematically, the opera establishes a competitive dynamism between different types of (or views on) love – the Duke’s erotomania, Gilda’s altruistic “romantic” love, and Rigoletto’s paternal protective eros, reserved only for his daughter. It is this dynamism that finally unravels the unsolvable Gordian knot, as reflected in the sequence of unfortunate events that lead to tragedy – all the way to Gilda’s sacrifice to save the life of the man she loves from the vengeful hand of her father.
Indeed, Rigoletto opened a whole new chapter of Verdi’s compositional logic. This is evident in that he did not conceive the opera as a hitherto established numerical sequence of musical points or pieces but as a uniform, comprehensive musical-dramatic structure with prominent and deeply interconnected rhythmic elements. Thus, it is no coincidence that Gilda’s aria Caro nome, which confesses her love for a fake student (the Duke in disguise), follows the same rhythmic movement as Rigoletto’s lament Larà, larà, in which the court jester tries to conceal his despair from courtiers while searching for traces of abduction of his daughter. One can say that Verdi was absolutely right when he saw a new level of musical theatre in Rigoletto, as it still touches us today with its melodic beauty and deep musical and psychological expressivity.