22 Feb 2023

Rigoletto Online Course by Paul DorganPart 3. About the Music of Rigoletto

by Paul Dorgan

The Orchestra of Rigoletto

Rigoletto is scored for the standard mid-nineteenth-century Italian opera-house orchestra: 2 flutes (with 2nd flute doubling piccolo; 2 oboes (with 2nd oboe doubling English horn); 2 clarinets; 2 bassoons; 4 horns; 2 trumpets; 3 trombones; bass trombone; timpani; cymbal; strings.   Off-stage is a Banda (See #3, below)a string quartet, with a double bass instead of the usual cello; cymbals; bells.

The Overture of Rigoletto

For some reason we tend to think that every opera should begin with an overture, which is an extended orchestral piece played before the curtain rises, and expect that this “overture” will introduce us to the tunes we will hear in the course of the evening, as it does in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas or in any pre-Stephen Sondheim Broadway show.  

Mozart wrote overtures for his operas but they tended not to be a “greatest-hits” pot-pourri. Yes, the overture to Don Giovanni begins with the music associated with the Commendatore’s statue; the overture to Così fan tutte clearly lays out the pitches to which Don Alfonso sings the title’s words; and the overture to Die Zauberflöte contains the fanfare of Sarastro’s priests. But, these referential snippets aside, Mozart’s overtures seem designed to suggest the atmosphere of what we are about to see: the bustling, secretive intrigue of Le nozze di Figaro, for instance. Beethoven wrote three overtures to Leonore, the first version of his only opera, all of which contained musical references to the opera;   when the opera was revised and renamed Fidelio, a new overture was provided which has no thematic connection to the opera. Rossini wrote elaborate overtures to his operas, but often they had little to do with the plot at hand. The original overture to Il barbiere di Siviglia (apparently a collection of Spanish folk-tunes in honor of the Spanish tenor Garcia who sang the Count) is lost. The one we hear today was added to the score when there was talk of publishing the complete opera after its very successful first performances in Rome in 1816. But that overture had been composed originally for Aureliano in Palmira (1813), and revised for Elisabetta Regina d’Inghilterra (1815). (Incidentally, the second part of Rosina’s opening aria was also taken from Aureliano, by way of Elisabetta.)

The Atlanta Opera production of Rigoletto
Photo: Jeff Roffman for The Atlanta Opera

Verdi seems to have felt uncomfortable with the overture, either the Rossinian version or the more symphonically-organized, trans-Alpine examples of Mozart or Beethoven. His first two scores have very basic, two-themed examples; the overture to Nabucco, his third opera and first great success, is a little more elaborate in its use of musical themes; that to Giovanna d’Arco is in three distinct sections, as is the one to Alzira. For La battaglia di Legnano Verdi provided a vivid example of how far he had travelled as a composer in a mere ten years. His next opera, Luisa Miller, has an overture based entirely on a single theme which is worked out with as much “symphonic” technique as any Austro-German symphony. Years later came the elaborately worked-out and wonderfully exciting overtures to Les vêpres siciliennes and La forza del destino; for the Italian première of Aïda at La Scala, in February 1872, he composed an extended overture but, having heard it in rehearsal, discarded it in favor of the Preludio that had been played at the world première at the Cairo Opera House in December 1871 and which we hear today. His final operas dispense with any kind of formal orchestral introduction: the music begins as the curtain rises and we are in mid-storm in Cyprus (Otello), or mid-letter and mid-sherry bottle (Falstaff).

The Preludio was more attractive to Verdi, and by 1851 he had mastered the form which, essentially, pitted two musical themes one against the other. La Traviata is probably the best-known example: both themes, and the counter-melody to the second theme, give us a musical portrait of Violetta. Rigoletto begins with a rhythm. The rhythm of Rigoletto’s reaction to Monterone’s curse: “Quell’ vecchio maledivami” (That old man cursed me!); it is also, for those of you with perfect pitch, intoned on middle C, the note that Rigoletto tends to come home to, as if it were a base from which he can take off on a lyrical flight. The rhythm dominates the 34 bars of the Prelude as the curse dominates Rigoletto; the passionate outburst of sobbing/sighing strings at the climax might represent Gilda’s fatal love, but, more likely, is Rigloetto’s love for his doomed daughter. Remember that the original title of the opera was to be La Maledizione. (The Curse).

Pit Orchestras and Bandas

When the curtain rises on the first scene we are in a magnificent room in the Ducal Palace. Lots of people are milling about. The stage directions tell us that we see people dancing in another room. Ideally, we should hear the dance music coming from that room (i.e. backstage), so we can hear the difference acoustically between the palace dance-band which has no connection to the drama, and the orchestra in the pit whose only function is to support and reflect the lives of the characters on stage.   Because off-stage orchestras are an additional expense to what is already an expensive proposition, only the major Opera Houses can afford them; and if it weren’t for recordings those of us who don’t live in Manhattan, or Chicago, or San Francisco would not be aware of Verdi’s plan. Consider the first conversation we hear: the Duke and Borsa, his courtier buddy, give us some very essential plot information; but it’s very hard for the audience, assuming it understands Italian, to grasp this text if there’s a wind/brass ensemble dancing in the pit. Put those instruments back-stage, however, and the text emerges quite clearly. Of course the pit orchestra will accompany the Duke’s Questa o quella. That orchestra returns with a menacing “Jaws”-like figure when Rigoletto suggests that Count Ceprano has no need of his head. Both orchestras combine in the ensemble leading to Monterone’s arrival, after which the Duke’s musicians decide it might be better to go home.

The off-stage dance music is provided by two very distinct instrumental groups. A string quartet (2 violins, viola and double bass, rather than the more usual cello) plays the Minuet and the Perigordino which, by the way, is a wild folk dance from the south-western region of France. Before the Venetian censors stepped in and the action was shifted from Paris to Mantua a French folk dance would have been quite appropriate; strictly speaking it’s out of place in Italy. But, on the other hand, it’s no more out of place than is the assassin Sparafucile who hails from Burgundy!

The Atlanta Opera production of Rigoletto
Photo: Jeff Roffman for The Atlanta Opera

The other group is the Banda, which simply translates to “Band”: a generic name for a group of wind and brass instruments playing off-stage. Bands of wind and brass instruments, with a drum or two thrown in, had been used by armies at least since Biblical times to strike terror into opponents’ hearts: Joshua, with his trumpets, literally brought down the walls of Jericho; and the sound of a bundle of Scottish bagpipes, even from a distance, would scare the kilt and sporran off many an enemy clan.     In Don Giovanni Mozart asks for three string groups on stage for the various dances at the end of Act 1.   Beethoven, at the climactic moment of Fidelio, has an off-stage solo trumpet signal the arrival of Don Fernando which leads to the downfall of the villain Don Pizzaro.     But it was Rossini, in his 1818 Riccardo e Zoraide, who introduced the banda to the theatre, and soon it was well-nigh ubiquitous.   In Bellini’s Norma it is an element of the Druids’ musical world, but scarcely audible to the audience.     Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor uses the banda for about 16 bars, effective but extravagant, heralding the off-stage arrival of Arturo (Enrico’s choice of husband for his sister) in the middle of the duet between Lucia and Enrico. Before Rigoletto Verdi had used the banda for the funeral march in Nabucco.   The banda march accompanying the entrance of King Duncan into the Macbeths’ castle has provoked ire for its triteness from many commentators, who seem to forget that a band in medieval Scotland, even a Royal one, would have been a pretty ramshackle crew. Not so the players Violetta hires for her party in the first act of La Traviata; they play decorous waltzes in an adjoining room – perfect dance music for a courtesan entertaining society’s upper crust.

If you look at the orchestral score of an opera that uses the banda, you will see that its music is written on two staves (like piano music) with no indication of the precise make-up of the group, because, away from the major opera houses, the theatre director probably hired the municipal band and who knew who was available on any given night!   Most likely the band-master divvied up the music between “melody” instruments, “bass” instruments and “chord/harmonic filler” instruments.   You have to wonder how many of these players could actually read music: Giovanni might well have been the best butcher or baker or candle-stick-maker, but did his skill extend to the trombone?   It’s quite possible that the local organist was drafted in to play the part on the piano and keep everyone together.  

À propos on-stage bands: Queen Victoria, supposedly, commanded a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta Iolanthe and felt that the band accompanying the very grand and pompous entrance of the House of Peers was insufficiently worthy of their rank; she ordered one of her Regimental Bands to ennoble their arrival.   I think a compromise was soon reached whereby the band would play only at the operetta’s opening performance during the company’s London seasons.   And it probably was quietly dropped as soon as was politically expedient!

Verdi’s Rebellion against 19th-century Opera Conventions

In nineteenth-century Italian opera there were certain traditions, convenienze, which a composer ignored at his peril. First of all singers were ranked according to their vocal importance:  Primo (male) and Prima (female) designated a Principal Character; Secondo/Seconda a supporting role; while a comprimario was, according to an older-generation Italian-American conductor friend , “A twenty-dollar part.”   Arias were allocated accordingly.   The primo/prima could expect at least one elaborate two-part aria, while a secondo might have an abbreviated one, or just an extended solo passage.  

A Principal’s aria begins with an introduction, usually orchestral; the singer, alone, or in conversation with a maid/friend, sets the emotional context in a page or two of recitative, which leads to a slow, lyrical movement.   Then something happens to break the mood: a letter is delivered or a servant enters with important plot information and, whether the news is good or bad, the music becomes more energetic and much more vocally brilliant with, usually, a long high note at the end.   Because the rhythm of this faster section echoes a galloping horse, it is called a cabaletta.

Such an aria was to be expected as soon as possible after the Principal’s first arrival on stage.     Verdi hated many of the convenienze, especially those connected with arias, and, whenever he could, did his best to eliminate them.   In Rigoletto he pretty much massacred them.   Consider.   We first hear the Duke, the primo tenore, in conversation with one of his buddies.   His first solo emerges from that conversation and dissipates into a Minuet.    Somewhere in the craziness of the party Rigoletto enters and if we’re not careful we might miss his opening lines. No hint of one of these two-part arias for either of these principals. How could one, let alone two, of these elaborate arias fit into the musical scheme of the first scene?   This is no longer an Italian composer providing a washing-line of vapid music, dotted by the clothes-pegs of arias, duets and ensembles.   Here Verdi is writing drama in music and convenienze be damned!

In the second scene Rigoletto enters alone.   The situation seems ripe for a two-part aria and he does begin a recitativo, but he’s interrupted by Sparafucile for a duet which deserves, and gets, its own section. Alone again Rigoletto is perfectly placed for a two-parter.   Instead we have a soliloquy.   Gilda, our Prima Donna Soprano, enters, only to sing a duet with her father and then one with her lover, the disguised Duke.   With the men in her life vocally disposed of, surely now she can have her traditional and expected aria?   She has her aria. But how “traditional” is it?   She savors her lover’s name for a few bars, which might pass for a recitativo introduction and the aria that follows is a perfect musicalization of an innocent’s rapturous dream of love.   Then she leaves.   Wait a minute! Where’s the cabaletta?   There isn’t one; nor was one ever contemplated.  The Prima Donna Soprano does not have a two-part aria??   In 1852 the husband of a soprano engaged to sing Gilda, mindful of his wife’s due as a prima donna, wrote to Verdi requesting a two-part aria, and received this reply:   “…where would you find a place for it?…Let me say that I conceived Rigoletto almost without arias, without finales but only an unending string of duets.”

There is a place for a two-part aria, and it is the only two-part aria in the entire score; not only that, it is as if Verdi had the two-part-aria rule-book open beside him as he composed it!   Act 2 begins with a very agitated orchestral introduction; the curtain rises, and the Duke rushes in, distraught that Gilda has disappeared.   He tells us, in a recitativethat some premonition brought him back to Rigoletto’s house, but that when he returned it was abandoned.   Then, in a beautiful melody, he sings of his love for Gilda.   The courtiers pile in to tell him they have abducted Rigoletto’s mistress, but it doesn’t take long for the Duke to realize they are talking of Gilda.   When they tell him she is “here” (i.e. in his bedroom), he is overjoyed and in the cabaletta, exults that soon she will know the real identity of the man who loves her.   Perfect two-part aria.   QED.

And what of our protagonist, the jester?   Rigoletto has a couple of soliloquys and an extended solo, none of which are in any recognizable mold, at least at this point in nineteenth-century Italian opera.   After offering his services as an assassin, Sparafucile leaves Rigoletto to his thoughts, and very disjointed ones they are, which could not be straight-jacketed into any regular musical form.   Emulating the great Shakespeare (“He is one of my favorite poets.   I have had him in my hands from my earliest youth, and I read and re-read him continually.”) Verdi composes a soliloquy for the jester “worthy of Shakespeare”.   Rigoletto’s second soliloquy comes in the final scene when, having paid off Sparafucile and taken ownership of the sack, he exults in a final victory over the man who seduced his daughter.   We, of course, know the tragic irony of the situation.   His extended solo occurs in Act 2 when, trying to be nonchalant after his daughter’s abduction, Rigoletto eventually explodes at the courtiers, cursing them as a vile and damnable group.   Such furious energy, from the singer and the orchestra, could not last and in the second, slower, section, he pleads with them to tell them where they have hidden his daughter; the strings transform their fury into a pleading, sobbing figure.   This evokes no reaction.   In the final section, which seems slower still, the sound-world is reduced to single voices: he sings one of those glorious Verdian melodies which exploits the upper range of the baritone voice; a pathetic-sounding English Horn mirrors his voice, while a solo cello outlines the harmony.   Fast-slow-sort-of-slower – where did this structure come from?   Certainly not from the rule book that guided the composer through the Duke’s Act 2 aria.   This form came from Verdi’s instinct that a “traditional” 2-part aria here would make ridiculous the extraordinary dramatic situation.  But it also came from Verdi’s rebellion against prevalent corrupt operatic traditions.     Further rebellions are in store!!!!

The Convention of the Concertato

One of the convenienze, which Verdi never abandoned, was the concertato.  This was the moment in the drama, usually at the half-way point, when, with the chorus and most of the principals on-stage, something unexpected occurs, the action freezes and everyone comments on the situation. Italian opera, and Verdi especially, knew that the sheer sound of the entire chorus combined with the principals (regardless of what they were actually singing) and the orchestra, all at full force, would provide the emotional catharsis audiences needed at that point.   Think of Flora’s party in La Traviata when Alfredo summons the guests to witness his repayment to Violetta of the money she had spent on him: horror from the guests; disgust from his father (though we might wonder why he shows up at such a party!); Alfredo’s guilt as it dawns on him what he just did; Violetta helpless to defend herself; support from Violetta’s friends.   Or remember, in Lucia di Lammermoor, when Lucy, believing her tenor-lover has deserted her, signs the contract to marry the wealthy Arturo; who should show up but tenor-lover: the musical result is the famous sextet where the principals express their individual reactions, joined eventually by the chorus.   Talk about show-stoppers!   It is such a great musical moment that oftentimes the audience wants to hear it again, and oftentimes the conductor will oblige, despite daggers-eyes from the principals!  As late as Otello Verdi and his librettist Boito fretted over the concertato: where it should go; how best to set it up dramatically; what should happen during it – Verdi had progressed far beyond the Traviata freeze.   Dissatisfied with its effect during the initial Milan performances they simplified and clarified it for its next production in Rome.   The action of Falstaff provides the perfect context for the concertato which, instead of stopping the dramatic flow actually contributes to it:   Ford and his followers are trying to find Falstaff who is somewhere in the house;   they hear a kiss from behind a screen, and stealthily, almost bar by bar, approach said screen.   That the kissers are not Ford’s wife and Falstaff gives dramatic energy to the closing pages.

In Verdi’s early operas there is usually a scene where the entire chorus sings in unison, quite often to a text that laments their subjection to a foreign power.   The obvious example is in Nabucco where the Hebrew slaves sing Va, pensiero, a version of the psalm “By the waters of Babylon”. .   In Rigoletto there is such a chorus, but it’s not a lamentation of oppressed slaves.   The courtiers are reacting to Monterone’s denunciation of the Duke and his curse on Rigoletto.   This is the concertato.   But the opera has scarcely begun!   To combine the unison chorus with the concertato?    What is going on?    Here we are, barely fifteen minutes into the opera, and two of the most sacred laws of Italian Opera have been violated!   Is Verdi trying to commit compositional suicide?

No Female Chorus!

One of the musical elements of Rigoletto that usually escapes our notice is the lack of a female chorus. Because we see women enjoying themselves at the opening party, we imagine we hear them singing!  The choruses in Rossini’s three most popular comedies today (Il barbiere di Siviglia;   La Cenerentola;   L’italiana in Algeri) are men-only, so we’re not especially disconcerted by the lack of female choristers.     But a male-only chorus is unique in Verdi.   This lack of chorus women adds to the oppressive (lower, and so darker)sound-world of the score, while setting in high and bright relief the vocal purity of Gilda.   Also unique is the use, in the final scene, of an off-stage wordless chorus, still all-male, moaning the storm-wind.    More of that later!

Duets Between Low Male Voices

In the second scene of Act 1 Rigoletto enters obsessed with Monterone’s curse.   Sparafucile appears and the music changes.   A single cello and a single double bass, both muted, begin what Julian Budden calls a “sinuous” melody – but only if you consider snakes “sinuous”:   it slithers around, very eerily, conjuring up an atmosphere of mystery and foreboding.   The accompaniment, plucking low strings, low clarinets and bassoons and, most ominously, a bass drum, adds to the weirdness.   Above this texture the baritone and bass transact their business.   Note the strange, but wonderful chords towards the end when the assassin reveals his name and where he’s from.

Duets between low male voices were not unknown in Italian opera before this.   Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia has one, and the one in Bellini’s I Puritani , rousingly ringing down the curtain on Act 2, provided the theme for an extravagant set of variations by the six greatest piano virtuosi of the day (Chopin, Liszt, Carl Czerny, Henri Herz, Johann Pixis and Sigismond Thalberg), with Liszt writing the introduction, the connecting material and the coda, to be performed at a concert in Paris in 1837 benefitting the poor.     But I digress!   Such male-voice duets were generally the province of comic opera.   The scene between Don Pasquale and Malatesta, when they plot to surprise Pasquale’s “wife” with her lover in the garden, is a perfect example of the genre.   And there is the delightful scene in the second act of Rossini’s La Cenerentola between Dandini and Magnifico.

Verdi ‘s duets for lower male voices are far from comic.     In Attila Enzo (baritone) and the hero (bass) discuss the division of Italy, which gives rise to Enzo’s rapturously-received line: “Take Italy, but leave Rome to me!”   Macbeth and Banquo (baritone and bass) comment on the witches’ prophesy.   There are two such duets in the unjustly rarely-performed Simon Boccanegra: one between Simon and Fiesco in the Prologue; in Act 3 the same pair, greatly changed, confront each other again.   The most extraordinary of Verdi’s low male duets is that between the King of Spain and the Grand Inquisitor in Don Carlos: two immovable mountains in a confrontation between politics and religion.    In his final opera Verdi, as if to say “Thanks for the loan”, returns the low-male-voice duet to its comic-opera origins with the wonderful scene between Falstaff and Ford.

Three Extended Father-Daughter Duets

Rigoletto contains three extended duets for baritone and soprano: father and daughter.  In many of his operas the central musical scene is a meeting between a father-figure and a daughter-figure.  Germont and Violetta in La Traviata;   Padre Guardiano and Leonora in La forza del destino;   Amelia and Simon in Simon Boccanegra; Aida and Amonasro in Aida, though this is far more confrontational than the others;   Abigaille and Nabucco, though here the supposed daughter holds the upper hand and forces Nabucco to submit to her wishes.   The duet between Lucrezia and Francesco in I due Foscari is the Germont-Violetta scene in embryo.    By the age of 27 Verdi had buried two young children, as well as his wife, so it’s not surprising that he would be drawn to such scenes.   And probably Freud would have had a field day had he analyzed the composer!

In the second scene of Act 1, Rigoletto arrives home from his job as jester at the Court.    The musical novelty of his soliloquy is tempered by the banality, both musical and textual, of the start of the first duet between father and daughter.    The term “duet” implies that both participants are basically on the same wavelength.   Not so here, after the initial “welcome home/I’m so glad to be home”.     Gilda wants to know about her mother, her “family” and why they moved to Mantua three months since.     Her father gives her vague information about her mother, but says nothing about the move.   His concern is that his daughter remain confined to the house, except for Sunday Mass.   The last part of the duet is addressed to the duenna.   Not exactly a meeting of the minds.   Though the music is glorious!


In the second act Gilda rushes out of the Duke’s bedroom into the arms of her father.   The oboe paints her sorrow as she tells how she met the disguised Duke and fell in love with him.   Rigoletto’s initial reaction concerns himself, but then he turns, briefly, to comfort his distraught daughter, though, in that comfort, it’s clear his mind is on revenge.   Which is only intensified when Monterone, the curser from Act 1, is led in on his way to prison.   He bemoans that his curse has been in vain, that the Duke is still alive.   No, says, Rigoletto, I will avenge you.   Gilda is horrified that her father would kill the man she loves.   Again father and daughter are in different worlds.   Again the idea of “duet” is undermined.

It is only in the final scene, when Rigoletto realizes that the body in the sack is his mortally wounded daughter, that they are able to talk on the same wavelength – at least father tells his daughter how much he loves her!   But it is too late. In the play Triboulet summons a doctor, but Piave’s and Verdi’s solution is much more effective:   the cursed father, so protective of his daughter, and unable to talk to her – unable to sing a real duet with her – is left alone with her corpse.   “The curse!”

Drama in the Music

Verdi, in Rigoletto, perhaps for the first time, uses orchestral effects and contrasts of keys in his search for drama in music.     In the Prelude we are introduced to a diminished chord, but it’s nothing extraordinary:   we’ve heard such chords before.   But notice that it becomes downright spooky when it reappears at the start of the second scene of Act 1, scored for low winds and strings, introducing Rigoletto’s first monologue; the sound will reverberate throughout the scene as Monterone’s curse rears its head.

In that monologue a solo flute, with a change of key, transforms the hate-filled jester into a loving caring father.   The clarity, and brightness of the flute is mirrored in the vocal characterization of Gilda.   Essentially she is the only female voice in an opera dominated by men.   Giovanna, Gilda’s duenna, is confined to an octave, while Maddalena, the object of the Duke’s desire in the last scene, stays in that same area: mid-range which exploits neither high nor low.   While Gilda does often sing in her lower range, Verdi is careful to set her lines, in a duet, or ensemble, in an area of the soprano voice that will paint her innocence and naïvety

In the first duet between father and daughter, Gilda tends to move into a “brighter” key, as if trying to shift her father’s brooding, in “darker” keys, into something more positive.   He hints at C minor, but she contradicts with C major; his Db becomes her C sharp which takes us to A major.  In their Act 2 duet she begins in E minor; as she becomes more enraptured with her student-lover she moves to C major, which becomes the pivot for him to turn to Ab, which then moves to his “comfort” Db tonality.    In their final duet, the dying Gilda begins in Db minor, but moves to the major as she sings of reuniting with her mother in Heaven.   She usurps his tonality and transforms it into an ecstatic vision of eternity.  

When Monterone interrupts the party in the first scene and Rigoletto opts to speak for the Duke, listen to the hobbling strings depicting the deformed jester, and then listen to the sneering winds and strings as he “judges” the Count.

“La donna è mobile”

In the final act the Duke (disguised, of course, since he’s slumming around!) sings what may well be the best-known aria from any opera.     For the general public “La donna è mobile”, sung – not to say caricatured – by The Three Tenors, and their assorted imitators, is OPERA.   For many opera lovers “La donna è mobile” is Rigoletto .   Its appeal is immediate and Verdi crafted it that way.     Dramatically there needed to be a tune that, even on first hearing, would be recognized in its various subsequent reappearances.   Verdi was so sure that he had written such a tune that, the story goes, he forbade the tenor to sing it in the theatre until the final dress-rehearsal, because he did not want the Venetian gondoliers singing it before opening night!   The disguised Duke, lured by the prospect of seducing Maddalena (Sparafucile’s sister), shows up at Sparafucile’s dilapidated hostelry and demands his sister and some wine.   While waiting for one, or the other, or both, he sings one of his favorite songs:   women are fickle, and men will always fall for their charms.     It’s not an aria in the sense that the character is reacting to an emotional situation – go back to the start of Act 2 where the Duke is distraught, wondering where Gilda might be:   how different is that aria!    This one is more like his first-act solo, “Questa o quella” – a sort of popular ditty extolling the availability of women.   But “La donna è mobile” needed to serve a double purpose.   Yes, the tenor can always have another solo, but the audience needs a tune to latch on to.   Consider the drama of this final act.   Rigoletto has paid for the murder of the Duke and fully expects that it’s the Duke’s body in the sack Sparafucile gives him.   Rigoletto, hearing his master’s voice, would know it’s not his body in the sack, but we, the audience, are not as familiar with the Duke’s voice, so we need reminders.   The immediate catchiness of Verdi’s tune implants itself in our brain.   It’s immediately reinforced by an orchestral play-out that adds some sinister shudderings from the cellos.   When the Duke is shown to his room he reprises his ditty as he gets ready to take a nap. Even though we know that it is Gilda’s body in the sack, and not the Duke’s, we still are horrified when we hear the tenor sing his song again!     What began as THE OPERATIC ARIA transforms itself into a musical pointer which would become known, in Wagnerian parlance, as a leitmotiv.   Sorry Wagner, Verdi was way ahead of you!

The Rigoletto Quartet

One of the marvels of opera is the fact that three or four or five or six characters, or even an entire cast and chorus, can sing together and the audience gets it, despite the fact that they’re all singing different words!   To paraphrase Bill Clinton: “It’s the music, stupid!”   Listen to the end of second act of Aida , the so-called “Triumphal Scene” .   The Egyptian people welcome home their victorious soldiers;   the prisoners lament their lot; the priests demand execution for the prisoners; while the soloists express their own emotions.   Verdi has arranged it so that we hear each “character” express their music before he combines it all into one amazing ensemble.

Remember the third act of Puccini’s La Boheme?   Rodolfo and Mimi are getting back together and singing beautiful, long, romantic lines, while Musetta and Marcello are having yet another huge fight, hurling abuse at each other.   Two contrasting duets superimposed on each other and the audience has no problem understanding what is going on.

When Hugo von Hofmannsthal sent his libretto of Der Rosenkavalier to Richard Strauss the opera essentially ended with the exit of the disgraced Baron Ochs.   As composition progressed Strauss realized that the triangle of Octavian, Sophie and the Marschallin needed a more detailed and emotionally satisfying resolution.     Hofmannsthal didn’t agree: he felt the piece was long enough without an extra 20 minutes of three female voices .   “I’ll guarantee the last 20 minutes if you guarantee the rest of it”, wrote Strauss.   For some people the only reason to see Rosenkavalier is that sublime Trio.

One of the greatest of all operatic ensembles is the Quartet in the last act of Rigoletto.    The stage is divided: we see the interior of Sparafucile’s dilapidated inn where the Duke is flirting with Maddalena; outside a road leads to Mantua and the river is nearby; Rigoletto has brought Gilda to watch her seducer with another woman.   As in La Boheme, two conversations at the same time.    This constitutes the first part of the Quartet.  The pair indoors know exactly why they are alone together: there just needs a few formalities exchanged before they go any further.   Contrast this situation with the Duke’s seduction duet with Gilda earlier in the opera, and compare his tactics (i.e. “melodies”) with two very different women.   In both instances there is grace (a Duke couldn’t be otherwise); but with Gilda he had to convince her of the purity of his love and the sincerity of his passion.   With Maddalena his tender, flatteringly wooing melody has a playfulness underlined by “Heh-heh-heh”s from the woodwind.        Maddalena replies with mocking laughter, accompanied by flute and clarinet.   Gilda is in despair to hear the man she loves speak so lightly of love; her line, with oboe and violins, sighs and sobs.   Rigoletto is unmoved, emotionally and vocally, by his daughter’s tears.     In the final section Gilda’s tears break up her soaring melody; Maddalena continues her laughter, mostly confined to one pitch; the Duke becomes more urgent in his seduction; and Rigoletto becomes vocally energized at the thought of his coming vengeance.     It is a stunning achievement!   It’s easy for a good composer to come up with tunes that will go well together. But only very rarely do we hear lines expressing each individual character come together as they do here.     Puccini didn’t do it in La Boheme; nor did Strauss in Der Rosenkavalier.

The Storm at the End of the Opera

I’ve already talked about some of the novel aspects of Verdi’s score which so discombobulated critics hearing it for the first time.   I suspect that what really threw them was the music after the Quartet.     That number’s sonic richness is followed by an unaccompanied recitative in which Rigoletto tells his daughter to go home, dress herself as a man, and ride to Verona where he will join her.   Now, a half-step higher (which is a jolt in itself), low strings begin a rhythmic figure punctuated by a cry from the oboe.   Thus begins what the score calls “Scene, a little trio, and Storm.”   This rhythmic figure returns three times.   Violins quiver and there is a flash of lightning from flute and piccolo.   A clarinet reminds us of the Duke’s opening phrase of the Quartet.   Distant thunder from low strings.   A wordless male chorus off-stage moans the wind.   The Duke, Maddalena and Sparafucile converse as if in a play, while the “background music” is the approaching storm.     But this is an opera, and everyone is supposed to sing in some recognizable structure.   Not here.   Not now.   Another recollection of the Quartet from the clarinet.   The Duke gets ready for bed, singing his “women are fickle” ditty, but yawns (provided by Verdi) and falls asleep.   Downstairs brother and sister begin a sort of melody, but it doesn’t get very far.   Lightning shows us Gilda, disguised as a man, returning to the inn.   As Maddalena explains her plan to save the Duke, the storm moves closer and finally we can latch on to a musical form.   It’s a trio whose two sections are separated by increasing wind, explosions of thunder, rain, and a bell, slightly skewed by the storm, striking the half-hour.   The storm reaches its climax as Gilda enters the inn.

There’ve been musical storms before this.   Vivaldi has a few in his “Four Seasons” and Beethoven wrote a pretty good one in his “Pastoral” symphony.     Rossini provided storm music to cover the passage of time in Il barbiere di Siviglia and the storm in La Cenerentola is the dramatic excuse for the royal party to show up in Magnifico’s house, which leads to the discovery of Cenerentola;   one section of the overture to his final opera, Guillaume Tell, is a storm.     But none of those storms gave a hint of the musical fury Verdi conjures up here.   But then there are so many emotional storms to be portrayed here!       He would give us another storm in the opening scene of Otello, but there he had the full chorus, assorted soloists, and an expanded orchestra playing more advanced instruments, to assist him.     Here it’s just three singers, a relatively modest orchestra, and some lighting effects.   (When the voices stop there’s a lovely direction in the score:   “Now start to work the back-stage thunder machine” with a cue when to stop.)

The storm moves on.   There’s still some lightning and string tremors when Rigoletto returns.     He points out the irony of the storm in the heavens while there is murder on earth.     A bell strikes midnight.   Rigoletto knocks, pays Sparafucile and claims the body.   Lightning.   In another soliloquy (no aria?) he gloats over his triumph.    More lightning.   He starts to drag the sac towards the river when he, and we, hear the Duke sing, in the distance, his “fickle women” ditty.   It can’t be!   But it is.   Then whose body is in the sack?     A flash of lightning reveals Gilda, mortally wounded.

This brings Rigoletto, and the score, back to a more “traditional” operatic world.   Daughter must explain why she disobeyed her father; he must forgive her; and she must welcome the fact that she will now be reunited with her mother.    But listen to the delicate, and so imaginative, scoring of this duet.   The first time Gilda sings her melody it is accompanied by arpeggios from the flute;   when she sings it again she is weaker and the violins pant underneath her.   We may have returned to something the Venetian critics would have understood in 1851, though the sound-world is new.   And Verdi makes sure that the opera ends, as it began, with Monterone’s curse – “La Maledizione”.