The Met Streams Verdi’s ‘Rigoletto’

By Lynne Gray, PhD

Please note this can be seen at www.metopera.org

Wednesday, July 29

Verdi’s Rigoletto  ~ 2 Hrs 4 Mins

Starring Ileana Cotrubas, Plácido Domingo, and Cornell MacNeil, conducted by James Levine. From November 7, 1977.

In its second stream of this venerable favorite, we move from 2013’s questionable 1950’s Las Vegas Rat Pack setting to a totally traditional John Dexter production from 1977, designed by Tanya Moiseiwitsch, which more authentically mirrors the dark passions of Verdi’s classic masterpiece, Rigoletto. Cornell MacNeil, in his sensational Met role debut, played the tortured hunchback jester, desperate to protect his daughter, Gilda (Ileana Cotrubas), from the lascivious world of the 16th century Duke of Mantua. Cotrubas was at her most affecting as the innocent young girl who sacrifices herself for love, while Plácido Domingo’s elegant tenor voice and suave appeal were perfect for the charming but ruthless Duke. James Levine, as usual, conducted.

An 1832 play, Le roi s’amuse, by Victor Hugo provided the scandalous inspiration for Verdi’s mid-career masterpiece. The story concerns a vengeful and sadly misguided court jester who is desperate to rescue his deflowered daughter from the Duke’s licentious clutches. None of it ends well, but along the way, Verdi gives us several of his most famous arias and duets—as well as the 11th-hour quartet that ranks among the finest moments in all of opera.

The tragic story revolves around the self-indulgent Duke of Mantua, his hunch-backed court jester, Rigoletto, and Rigoletto’s daughter Gilda. The opera’s original title, La maledizione (The curse), refers to it’s central theme – a curse in the very first act hurled at both the Duke and Rigoletto by a courtier, Monterone, whose daughter the Duke has recently seduced and disgraced – with Rigoletto’s help and encouragement. The curse comes to fruition with a vengeance when Rigoletto’s own daughter Gilda falls in love with the Duke and then sacrifices her own life to save him from the assassin hired by her father to murder him.

So you don’t have to go digging for my first description of the story, I repeat it here in case you want to tune in to another of the Met’s oldies – but definitely goodies – from over 40 years ago. 

When the curtain rises, we are introduced to the Duke as he celebrates his lusty, self-indulgent life – devoted to his own pleasures – with as many women as possible. He boasts that he particularly enjoys conquering the wives and daughters of his own courtiers in his famous aria: “Questa o quella” (This woman or that- it really doesn’t matter, they’re all the same!). 

We hear him tell a retainer that he has recently seen an innocent young beauty in church (a useful hunting ground!) and desires to find her and possess her, but first – he will seduce the Countess Ceprano with whom he is flirting that particular evening.

Rigoletto, the Duke’s jester, openly mocks the husbands of the ladies to whom the Duke is paying attention, including the Count Ceprano whose wife is the Duke’s current target. Rigoletto advises the Duke to get rid of Ceprano – either by throwing him in prison or just having him killed. By the end of this scene, we have a good picture of the Duke and his enablers and the stage is set for Count Monterone, who arrives at the court angrily denouncing the Duke for having seduced his daughter (presaging Rigoletto’s own fate). Monterone proceeds to curse both the Duke and Rigoletto, setting up the tragedy to come. 

So, we have been introduced to the degenerate Duke and his sidekick, Rigoletto, but now we learn that Rigoletto has secretly brought his daughter – his only love on earth since his wife died – to live with him in the city. His devotion to her and his wish to protect her from his life with the Duke have led to his keeping her locked away in his private house. She, of course, is young, naïve and longs to see the world, but is allowed only to go out to attend church (are you sensing a problem?). As you have probably guessed, she has fallen in love with a man in church who she believes to be a starving student named Gaultier Maldè. 

After Monterone’s disturbing curse at the palace, Rigoletto meets Sparafucile, an assassin for hire, on his way back home. After saying he has no immediate need for Sparafucile’s services, we hear his touching, introspective aria “Pari siamo!” (We are equally skilled at wounding – he with a knife, I with my tongue). Returning to his house, Rigoletto and Gilda sing a beautiful father-daughter duet “Figlia / Mio Padre / Deh, non parlare al misero / Del suo perduto bene” (Child – do not speak to your wretched father of his lost love), and he again leaves her for the evening in the care of her (easily bribed) governess.

The Duke (now dressed as the student, Gaultier Maldè) has discovered where his new young conquest is living and easily bribes his way into the house where he continues the seduction he began in church. He has not yet figured out that Gilda is actually Rigoletto’s daughter – not that it would matter anyway. Their love duet is particularly wonderful “È il sol dell’ anima, la vita è amore,” (Love is the sunshine of the soul, it is life itself) and her aria “Caro nome” (Dearest name) after the Duke has left her, is perfectly glorious. Rigoletto returns, but encounters the Duke’s henchmen who trick him into believing they are out to kidnap the Countess Ceprano for the Duke. They enlist his aid, mask – and blindfold – him and lead him to his own house where he holds the ladder as they abduct Gilda. Left alone, he discovers who has in fact been carried away and collapses in despair remembering Monterone’s curse. 

The remainder of this classic tragedy is absolutely filled with wonderful – and familiar – arias and duets: The Duke’s disingenuous “Ella mi fu rapita!” (She has been stolen from me) and “Parmi veder le lagrime” (I see her tears) – when he is mildly concerned that Gilda has disappeared. His henchmen, however, soon bring Gilda to him – they actually thought they were stealing Rigoletto’s mistress. Then Gilda’s “Ciel! dammi coraggio!” (God, give me courage) … to tell her father she has been seduced; Gilda and Rigoletto’s second touching duet, “Piangi, fanciulla,” (Cry, my child) …. before he hires Sparafucile to assassinate the Duke; the Duke’s famous “La donna è mobile” (Women are fickle) – accusing women of being what he himself actually is; the fabulous Act III quartet “Bella figlia dell ‘amore” (Fairest daughter of love) – sung by the Duke to a prostitute (actually Sparafucile’s sister) while Gilda is outside listening with her father; and finally, when the planned assassination has gone horribly wrong, Gilda and Rigoletto’s “V’ho ingannato… colpe vole fui… L’amai troppo… ora muoio per lui!” (I deceived you … I was guilty …I loved him too much … and now I die for him!) 

Photo Credits

1. Ileana Cotrubas as Gilda and Cornell MacNeil in the title role of Verdi’s “Rigoletto” at the Met, 1977. Photo Credit: Jack Mitchell / Met Opera. 

2. Placido Domingo as the Duke of Mantua in Verdi’s “Rigoletto” at the Met, 1977. Photo Credit: Jack Mitchell / Met Opera. 

3. Ileana Cotrubas as Gilda and Cornell MacNeil in the title role of Verdi’s “Rigoletto” at the Met, 1977. Photo Credit: Jack Mitchell / Met Opera.

4. Justino Díaz as Sparafucile and Isola Jones as Maddalena in Verdi’s “Rigoletto” at the Met, 1977. Photo Credit: Jack Mitchell / Met Opera. 

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