Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: An Opera Profane and Controversial: Verdi’s Rigoletto

We mark the first performance on March 11, 1851 – 173 years ago today – of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Rigoletto at Venice’s storied Teatro la Fenice: The Phoenix Theater.

Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) in 1852, a year after the premiere of Rigoletto
Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) in 1852, a year after the premiere of Rigoletto

We set the scene.  

The year was 1849.  Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi (1813-1901) was – at the age of 36 – the most famous and popular composer of opera living and working in Italy.  

Living in his hometown of Busseto, in the Parma region of northern Italy, Verdi spent the last days of 1849 and the first weeks of 1850 considering future opera projects.  He sat down and drew up a list of stories that captured his interest, a list filled with literary masterworks old and new.  At the top of the list were Shakespeare’s King Lear, Hamlet, and The Tempest.  There was Kean, by Alexander Dumas pere and Victor Hugo’s Marion Delorme, Ruy Blas, and Le Roi s’amuse (“The King’s Jester”).  Among other works on the list were Lord George Gordon Byron’s Cain; Jean Baptiste Racine’s Phedre; Pedro Calderon de la Barca’s A Secret Grievance, a Secret Revenge; Vicomte Francois Rene de Chateaubriand’s Atala; and Count Vittorio Alfieri’s Filippo (which would eventually become the opera Don Carlo).


Francesco Maria Piave (1810-1876)
Francesco Maria Piave (1810-1876)

Narrowing things down more than just a bit, Verdi wrote the librettist Francesco Maria Piave (1810-1876) at his home in Venice and asked him – per favore – to prepare a draft scenario for Victor Hugo’s Le Roi s’amuse,(“The King’s Jester”).  Piave consented to do so, and additionally suggested some other possible texts, including a play by the French dramatists Émile Souvestre and Eugène Bourgeois entitled Stifellio.

Verdi and Piave went ahead with Stifellio, which was Verdi’s 16th (of 27) operas. It received its premiere on November 16, 1850, at the Teatro Grande in the city of Trieste, in the north-eastern corner of Italy. 

To say that Stifellio has a controversial plot is a major understatement.  It’s a drama about a Protestant minister who leaves his home to preach, during which time his lonely wife takes a lover.  Having confessed her infidelity, the opera reaches its climax as the preacher forgives her adultery while delivering a sermon from his pulpit.  All in all, it was a most unusual subject for an opera composed and performed in Catholic Italy.  

Just days before Stifellio’s opening, the local censors in Trieste exercised their “prerogative” and savaged the opera, cutting out whole sections of what they called “offensive text.”  

Those poor, offended censors hardly knew where to start!  OMG, the protagonists were Protestant!  Actual verses from the Bible were sung onstage!  An adulterous woman was portrayed sympathetically, and then – then – she was forgiven by her husband!  Various pieces of religious paraphernalia were used as props! By the time the censors had finished with it, little of Stifellio was left untouched.  Verdi was apoplectic, and he accused the censors of having “castrated” his opera.  Somehow, Verdi, Piave, and the cast managed to stitch together what was left and went on with the show.  It was nothing short of a miracle that Stifellio wasn’t a complete flop.  It was only a partial flop, because its sympathetic audience – including the critics – were aware of its 11th hour demolition.  

It’s important that we know something of Stifellio’s fate, because when censors threatened Verdi’s next project – Rigoletto – Verdi was prepared to go to war!…

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