Rigoletto at San Diego Opera in 2009. Yours truly is the first courtier on the left.
In just a few weeks Verdi’s Rigoletto will be opening at The San Diego Opera. Let’s talk about how it fits in with the current milieu of hypersensitivity. The fact of the matter is that it doesn’t fit in. Rigoletto would never have made it to the stage if it had been written in 2018. That’s somewhat ironic because it almost didn’t make it to the stage in 1851 due to Austrian censorship.
The opera is based on a play by Victor Hugo entitled Le Roi s’amuse which translates, “The King is having fun.” What is the king having fun doing? Raping every woman he possibly can and getting away with it because he’s the king. That should explain why I don’t think Rigoletto could make it to the stage if it were premiered today.
The Austrian censors had no problem with the rape. They had a problem with a king being portrayed as lecherous and a libertine. Once Verdi reduced the king’s rank to a duke of an extinct family line, the duke of Mantua, he was clear to go forward with all the rape material.
The story is that Rigoletto, the duke’s jester, sets the women up and the duke knocks ‘em down. Rigoletto is ruthless in his choice of women. He even chooses the wives and daughters of the gentlemen of the court and then mocks them after The duke has raped their lady-folk. All goes well for Rigoletto until the aristocracy get revenge by kidnapping Rigoletto’s daughter Gilda and handing her over to the duke.
The story quickly becomes a tragedy for Rigoletto. Not so for The duke who continues to go about his business of womanizing as the show comes to an end. The duke has no idea and cares not about the destruction his lechery has wrought upon Rigoletto and Gilda.
Herein lies the meaning of the story. Rigoletto and Gilda are devastated by the duke simply being the duke. He is oblivious to the obliteration. This is a story about the ingrained corruption of the ruling class and their rapacious practices.
In our current situation, we might be tempted to rewrite the end of Rigoletto and see the duke stripped of his title and land. We might be tempted to see the duke exiled or imprisoned.
That the duke continues without pause is what makes Rigoletto such a powerful story. It compels us toward action instead of us simply experiencing a vengeance fantasy. If the duke is brought to justice then what do we need to do? Nothing. It all ended as it should. There is no need to scrutinize our culture and society because justice was served.
By starving justice Rigoletto becomes a story which has the power to ignite change. #Rigolettotoo.