Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes Giuseppe Verdi – Rigoletto

A Lurid, Depraved Tale!

Put in contemporary terms, the plot of Rigoletto is, frankly, revolting: a sixteenth century version of the Jeffrey Epstein/Ghislaine Maxwell story. The opera tells the tale of a rich, slimy, powerful, utterly amoral man (the Duke of Mantua/Epstein) who, among his many carnal sins, rapes and traffics in teenaged girls, abetted by his court jester, Rigoletto (Maxwell). Rigoletto himself only begins to regret the duke’s penchant for youngsters when he discovers that his own teenaged daughter, Gilda, is on the duke’s “defile bucket list.” She is indeed abducted and delivered to the duke’s bed, where he has his way with her, and where – like a hostage suffering from Stockholm Syndrome – she “falls” for her captor, the duke! Beside himself with grief and rage, Rigoletto hires a hit man named Sparafucile to whack the duke, but Rigoletto has been cursed, and instead, it is Gilda whose adolescent bosom receives the business end of Sparafucile’s stiletto!

Luciano Pavarotti, the Duke of Mantua; Ingvar Wixell, Rigoletto and Monterone; Edita Gruberová, Gilda; Ferruccio Furlanetto, Sparafucile The Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Riccardo Chailly

Game Plan

Here is the game plan for this double-length post.

We will occupy ourselves with the two, opening episodes of the opera.

The first of these episodes is the “prelude,” (or overture), the music of which anticipates the maledizione – the curse – that will drive the opera’s action and its denouement.

The second episode is the matchless party scene that follows the prelude, during which we meet the despicable but charismatic Duke of Mantua (played to perfection by Luciano Pavarotti); the duke’s equally reprehensible court jester, Rigoletto (played correspondingly well by the Swedish baritone Ingvar Wixell, 1931-2011); and Count Monterone (also played by Ingvar Wixell). Monterone is an old and dignified aristocrat, a foe of the duke whose curse drives the primary action of the story.

Episode One: Prelude

In Ponnelle’s film, the story is told in flashback, beginning in the prelude. The prelude features the music that will, soon enough, accompany Count Monterone while he delivers his curse of Rigoletto. Here in Ponnelle’s production, the prelude is used to accompany Rigoletto’s discovery of his daughter’s corpse, which is also how the opera ends.

Episode Two: The “Party”

It’s party time at the Duke of Mantua’s pleasure-palace, and Jean-Pierre Ponnelle goes for the entire calzone. This is no evening soiree with wine and canapes; it’s not even the Playboy Mansion circa 1550; but rather, a grotesque, decadent, Caligula-like orgy, all of it a reflection of the Duke of Mantua’s profane tastes!

The ballroom is brightly lit as courtiers, ladies, servants, and homo-erotic musclemen in various states of dress and undress romp about. The mood is wild. A dance band plays in the background, its banal, circus-like music standing in abject contrast to the tragic music just heard in the prelude.

(For our information, during the course of this opening scene, various such “bands” will play a total of five different dance tunes. According to the British opera and Verdi scholar Julian Budden, the function of this dance music is:

“to depict the corruption and triviality of the Duke of Mantua’s court.”

From a compositional point of view, this dance band music is an ever-present “canvas” upon which the voices of this party scene are projected and layered.…

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