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.