Rigoletto is an enduring masterpiece of the Italian Romantic opera because of the way Verdi’s immortal music equally evokes the grandeur of the dark and sometimes terrifying forces at work in our world, and the intimacy of parents, children, and troubled people trying to do what’s right in a world where everything seems to have gone wrong.
Challenging the powers that be from the start, even the Victor Hugo play that Rigoletto is based on, Le roi s’amuse, was banned by the censors after its first performance. When Verdi and his librettist Piave sought to make this play into a grand Italian opera, they had to change Hugo’s historical king to an imaginary 16th century Duke from an extinct family line in order to make it acceptable to the presiding politicians of their day. Everyone saw how dangerous this story could be, by exposing through tragic catharsis the immorality of the powerful and those that enable them.
Rather than treating Rigoletto as a museum piece, I wanted to invigorate what was exciting and important about it to its original authors and audience, in a way that spoke to our times.
Instead of looking at simply moving it to another specific time period, the designers and I looked at how to evoke the all-too-real forces of power, violence, betrayal, hypocrisy, paranoia, and vengeance that Verdi’s score invokes. I spent hours poring over the libretto in Italian and English, looking at how the characters act within and speak about their world. From this work, dynamic images began to emerge – an oppressive world of darkness with monumental and imposing walls dividing the decadent wealthy and powerful and those outside. From the Duke’s “palace of pleasure” to the intimate family home of Gilda and Rigoletto, we sought to make tangible the challenges and questions that this opera invokes. I wanted to make the hopes, dreams, and fears of these characters physical, while allowing the music to lead the way.
Putting Rigoletto in old-timey hose and ruff with fake painted marble columns would not have been true to the great importance Rigoletto still has to our time. Rigoletto is still so cutting-edge in its themes, in fact, that it is difficult to talk about it without directly talking about our modern world. In lieu of being overly didactic, let me simply talk factually about the plot: The Duke is a powerful, abusive womanizer who lies, bullies, and assaults to get what he wants, especially when it comes to sex. He never faces any consequences for his actions. Rigoletto and the chorus of wild, frat-boy aristocratic men look the other way and even enable the Duke, hoping to gain his favor for selfish power and patronage. Gilda, bright and curious, is locked away from the world, denied full participation in its society, and even denied her own history by a father who thinks he is protecting her. And the rest of the world is filled with paranoia, spying, black market deals, and a natural world which grows as violent as the world of men.
Rigoletto is about power without consequence, about men who abuse and have no moral judges. Verdi elevated Hugo’s original work by making Rigoletto a person struggling in the middle, between the corrupt society at large and his care and obligations to his family. How many of us can say we don’t sometimes struggle to stand up in public for the values we hold dear in private? I don’t know that any of us can. Like Rigoletto, it can be a challenge to get by day-to-day in our world. But I hope our production, and the sorrow and folly of Verdi’s great tragedy, can inspire us all to not remain silent or complicit.