A night in at the opera: Verdi’s “Rigoletto” from the Met

When a work of art becomes very familiar, there is a danger that it becomes too comfortable, too cosy – that it loses its edge. Or, rather, our perceptions are so dulled that we can no longer feel its edge. Instead of exciting, or provoking, or disturbing, it merely relaxes, and becomes merely a sedative.

Verdi’s operas seem to me to fall quite frequently in this category. Take Rigoletto, for instance – it’s among the best-loved of all operas, and full of the most hummable tunes. But if we stop seeing it merely as a medley of great tunes and consider what the opera is actually about, should we love this work?

Both in this opera, and in La Traviata, Verdi presents a world in which gratification is seen as the only end worth striving for – a world in which mere pleasure is mistaken for joy; and he dramatises the fate in such a world of human emotion – of true human emotion, whose end is other than that of mere self-gratification. In both operas, the outcome is tragic. In La Traviata, however, human emotion is affirmed despite the outcome: as Orwell famously said of tragedy, we are left with the feeling that humanity is greater than the forces that destroy it. But in Rigoletto, we don’t even get this: there is no affirmation, and the darkness that falls upon the scene by the final curtain is absolute. A work such as this should inspire us with terror and with awe: but instead, it is seen all too often as a safe work, as something merely to tap our feet to as we relax in our armchairs at the end of a hard day. And I can’t help feeling that something, somewhere, has seriously gone wrong.

The plot of Rigoletto, taken from a play by Victor Hugo, is simple enough. The Duke of Mantua is charming and charismatic, but sees sensual pleasure as the sole purpose of living; and to this end, he doesn’t care whom he hurts or even destroys. He has around him a sycophantic court that appears to share his cheerful amorality. And in this court is the jester, the hump-backed Rigoletto, cruelly taunting everyone around him – even the Duke’s victims – and hated by all. Rigoletto appears, indeed to be the very personification of the moral degradation of the court.

But then, Verdi digs deeper. An outcast and an outsider, Rigoletto has forced himself into this role as a means of survival, and, recognising his own hatefulness, he hates himself for being what he is. It seems at times that he makes himself all the more hateful to justify his intense self-hatred. But there is one part of himself that he tries to keep pure from this corruption, and the living embodiment of this part of himself is his daughter. The more he hates the corruption both within and without his own self, the more he loves the purity that is his daughter; and the more insistently does he try to keep her isolated from the evil that he knows is all around. But, of course, as he knows full well, he is himself part of this evil. The mechanics of the plot are perhaps not so important here: what matters is that Rigoletto cannot keep the corruption at bay, and that the evil from which he tries to protect his daughter, but of which he is himself a part, claims her. She is abducted (with his unwitting participation), and is raped. And when he seeks justice by hiring a hit-man to assassinate the Duke, his daughter, who has been kept innocent of the ways of the world and is now confused in the extreme, heroically sacrifices her life to save the man not worth saving. Never has a sacrifice been simultaneously so heroic, and yet so pointless. As she expires, mouthing pious but meaningless platitudes, Rigoletto knows what the real score is: from now on, he will have to live completely alone in a world that is not worth living in. He won’t possess even that part of himself that he had tried to keep clean and pure: even that has been casually violated, and then just as casually destroyed. In most tragedies, the tragedy is that the protagonist dies; here, the tragedy is that the protagonist has to go on living. I cannot think of any other opera, except perhaps Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, that is so utterly bleak and despairing.

I am afraid I have seen too many productions of this piece that are, though well sung, merely jolly romps. Last weekend, I watched on DVD the recent production from the Metropolitan Opera of this work, and, to be frank, I watched expecting the worst: while musically, the Metropolitan Opera of New York is among the best opera houses in the world, its productions have frequently been ultra-conservative. Yes, it is true that one can misrepresent a work with wilful and daft productions – the sort of thing known across the Atlantic as “Eurotrash” (this year’s Ring Cycle at Bayreuth, complete with copulating crocodiles – no, seriously! – is a case in point); but it seems to me that presenting Rigoletto essentially as a cosy, comfortable work, without communicating the profound darkness at its heart, is equally a misrepresentation. The question shouldn’t be whether the production is “conventional” or “radical”: I have seen good and bad examples of both. The question should be: Is the production intelligent?

This production places Rigoletto in Las Vegas some time in the 60s. Although this has displeased some of the more conservative reviewers on the Amazon page, this seems to me quite reasonable: after all, where better than Las Vegas to represent a world in which pleasure is mistaken for joy? And on the whole, it seems to me rather well done. But it is not without its problems. The Duke here is transformed into a night-club singer, and that is surely wrong: the whole point of the opera is that the Duke is a man who commands immense power. He is a man who can have Monterone sentenced to death simply because Monterone had accused him in his own court of having “seduced” his daughter (although, as we see with Gilda, “seduction” in this context often covered what we’d now more accurately describe as “rape”). In this production, we see Monterone (here an Arab sheikh) led away to his death not by the Duke’s soldiers, but by professional hitmen. And the question arises: why? We can understand that the Duke would not tolerate being denounced in his own court, but it’s hard to see why a singer, even assuming that he has powerful underworld connections, should put hitmen on to this chap.

It would certainly have made more sense to have turned the Duke into a gangland boss, as Jonathan Miller had done in his celebrated ENO production, but  even this has its problems: in the opera, there is the great irony that the Duke, ostensibly the lawmaker, and the professional assassin, who lives outside the law, are morally equivalent; but if they are both depicted as living outside the law, then this irony is lost. But at least the drama made sense in Jonathan Miller’s production. Here, presenting the Duke merely as a singer doesn’t really make much sense at all.

Neither is it clear what position Rigoletto occupies in relation to the Duke. In the opera, he is court jester; in Jonathan Miller’s production, he is a barman, with a penchant for cruel mockery. But what exactly is he here? It’s hard to say.

And removing the hump – or, at least, making it so small as to be unnoticeable – also seems counter-productive. It is his physical disfigurement that has made Rigoletto an outsider in society: he is seen merely as a circus freak for people to laugh at. But what reason is there here for his alienation, and for his bitterness? I don’t have a problem with the action moved to Las Vegas, but it does seem to me that the implications of this move have not been fully thought out.

And neither, in terms of the action, has been that notorious scene where Rigoletto unwittingly helps the Duke’s men abduct his own daughter. For the drama to hold together thematically, Rigoletto must be complicit, however unwittingly, in the violation of his beloved daughter: his unwitting involvement in this particular piece of action reflects his greater involvement in his daughter’s downfall. But the plot mechanism used by Verdi (and, presumably, by Hugo, although I am only guessing here, as I don’t know the play) is clumsy in the extreme. Verdi’s audiences possibly wouldn’t have minded, but, to a modern audience, it can’t appear as anything other than silly. This piece of silliness wouldn’t have mattered in an opera in which the entire dramatic action is a bit silly (Il Trovatore, say, or Parsifal), but in a work in which the rest of the drama is compelling, and, indeed, frighteningly believable, this passage sticks out badly. In this production, the silliness is avoided, but Rigoletto has no involvement, unwitting or otherwise, in the abduction of his daughter; Rigoletto’s part in the violation of his daughter is lost, and the drama, as a consequence, diminished.

For all the shortcomings of the production, something of the power of this bleak and uncompromising drama did come through. This is due to a great extent to the music, which, as it should in any opera, depicts the drama rather than being merely decorative. I do not want to comment on the musical aspects of it, except to say that to my admittedly untrained ears, the performance sounded good, though not, perhaps, exceptional. But then again, having heard on recordings some of the very greatest singers of the last 60 or so years in these roles – Leonard Warren, Tito Gobbi, Maria Callas, Carlo Bergonzi – I may be a bit spoilt. Be that as it may, the performance here of the orchestra, the conductor, and of the singers, did communicate very powerfully the tragic power of this very great masterpiece. Even decades of familiarity cannot, and should not, dull the effect of something such as this.

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6 responses to this post.

  1. Oh, you frustrate me. I’m so sorry, maybe if I was sitting at a desk…I can’t keep up.

    You London intelligentsia, just wait, we’ll be down with our pikes. Wonderful blog, I’ll keep exploring.

    Late at night I watch youtube opera in secret. I google ‘Carnegie 1978’ till I find the one, loving even the commentary…so shaming, listeing to opera, dear dear.

    Where do I start? Thank you.

    Reply

    • Hello, and thank you for that!

      I have been called quite a few things in my time – not all of them compliemntary, I’m sorry to say – but this is the first time I’ve been accused of being part of the “London intelligentsia”! I don’t even live in Hampstead! Indeed, I live a bit outside London – I don’t get to vote in the London mayoral elections, for instance. And as for the “intelligentsia” part of it – well, I guess it beats being called a “shithead”! 🙂

      It’s great that opera is so easily accessible – from DVDs (watching opera on DVD has become a favourite pastime of mine), to cinema broadcasts, to youtube – isn’t it amazing what you can find on youtube these days?

      Cheers,
      Himadri

      Reply

  2. I really appreciate your analysis of a modern interpretation of this opera. I guess the producers were trying to make it culturally relevant or understandable to a modern western audience. However, with you, I agree that something vital is lost. Should we assume that the audience isn’t knowledgeable enough to understand the type of despotism that existed in a time when aristocracy was above the law?

    Or perhaps to make it modern they should have made the duke’s character a Hollywood producer.

    I didn’t realize Victor Hugo wrote the story. He’s one of my favorite authors. I’m going to look up his original story.

    Reply

    • Hello Sharon,

      The opera is based on the play “Le Roi S’Amuse” by Victor Hugo, but I’m afraid I haven’t yet been able to track down an English translation. I’m not sure that any translation exists, but if it does, I’d be keen to read it.

      With something as well-known as “Rigoletto”, I do feel there is a danger that a very conventional, conservative production can make the whole thing appear too cosy and comfortable. I say this because I have, in my time, seen oe or two very conservative productions that conveyed nothing of the darkness at the heart of of this opera: it was merely a case of enjoying the pretty costumes and the beautiful voices – it was fun in its way, but it wasn’t drama. I don’t in principle object to setting the action in Las Vegas, as they have done here. But in this instance, the details weren’t adequately thought through, and while I was still very much affected by the ending (that last act is surely among the finest in all opera), the drama was, it seems to me, weakened.

      However, we do appear to have touched on the question of the limits of interpretation: a production of an opera or a play has to be an interpretation in some way or other, and what with theatrical conventions and audience expectations being different from the times in which the work was written, absolute fidelity to the letter is neither possible nor desirable (We don’t have boys playing Rosalind or Cleopatra, say, and are happy to have certain roles in Handel’s operas sung by counter-tenors or conrtraltos rather than by castratos). But what are the legitimate limits of interpretation? Beyond what point does it become a re-write? It’a fraught question, and would make a good subject for a post. But I had better give it a bit of thought first, I think…

      Reply

      • I saw Rigoletto years ago with Pavorotti playing the Duke. I was pretty young at the time but I remember thinking “What a horrible cad of a man!” Pavorotti played a happy reprobate very effectively. I truly hated his character.

        And even though I felt horrible for Rigoletto’s daughter, in a way I felt a certain sense of “serves you right, you little jerk! You didn’t mind helping the duke de flower countless other men’s daughters, now you know what it’s like!”

        Still, his one redeeming point was that he did care for his daughter.

        Of course you seem to see Rigoletto as doing what he can with the circumstances he’s forced into, but I didn’t gather that from the production I saw.

        Vladimir Chernov played Rigoletto (I think) and he made Rigoletto out to be a pretty selfish person and a hypocrite to boot because he didn’t want his own daughter ravished, even though he helped the duke hurt others.

        Really, I just love Victor Hugo. He shows the darkness of the human heart but not without shedding light in order to better throw the darkness into sharp relief.

        I don’t know if I have strong opinions about modern interpretations of plays or operas. I think I’m a bit of a traditionalist. I saw The Tempest in Straford on Avon and the actors wore contemporary dress, but that play is so surreal anyway.

        I think you should write a post about individual interpretations. That would be interesting.

      • I’ve only seen Rigoletto live on stage only once, and that was a Scottish Opera production from my student days, well over 30 years ago now. I can’t even remember the cast, I’m afraid. I have seen a couple of televised versions of it since, and also a few productions on DVD. I certainly envy you having heard singers such as Pavarotti and Chernov live.

        I usually experience the operas through audio recordings. There are a couple of recordings of Rigoletto from the 1950s that I particularly love – one featuring Leonard Warren as Rigoletto, and the other featuring Tito Gobbi: I find it impossible to imagine either performance bettered. When I listen to these recordings, I get the impression of Rigoletto being a very complex character. Of course, he is a despicable and hateful figure, but the story merely of a hateful figure getting his come-uppance isn’t very interesting as drama. Verdi (and presumably Hugo before him) does convey, I think, a character of considerably greater complexity – a man who realizes full well how morally low he has sunk, and who hates himself for it, but who is all the more determined, for that very reason, to keep one part of himself, at least, pure and clean. When seen in such terms, I think the drama’s devastating!

        I am currently reading Les Miserables for the first time, and am enjoying it. I’ll write something about it here once I’ve finished.

        I don’t really go to the opera (or to the theatre) often enough to compare different interpretations, I’m afraid! I do have tickets for a theatre production of

        Ibsen’s Ghosts in a couple of weeks’ time, but this is the first time in over a year I’ll be going to the theatre. I’m really looking forward to this.

        I take it it’s the Patrick Stewart version of The Tempest that you saw: I didn’t see it myself, but it was very warmly received. Some 27 years ago now – I remember the date exactly, as it was the first night after we were married – we were in Stratford-on-Avon to see a production of Romeo and Juliet. (I know – it’s corny, isn’t it?) The action was updated to modern times, and the Capulets and the Montagues were presented as warring Mafioso families. I thought it worked very well (the integrity of the text was respected). The play is, after all, bursting with exuberance and with youthful high spirits, and the whole thing was done with a vim and vigour that seems to me very much in the spirit of the play. In contrast, the BBC Shakespeare version of the play, dating from the late 70s, is intolerably staid and dull, and, although set in Renaissance times, seems to me much further from the spirit of the play than the version with modern setting we saw on stage. It’s not that I insist that every production has to be a modernised production – far from it: but the production stands or falls, I think, on how intelligently it presents the original material. (I think I have a bit more to say on this in a post I am currently writing!)

        All the best, Himadri

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