Reflections of Rigoletto
Or how the hunchback gave his only daughter to die for our sins
A cabinet of curiosities starring Victor Hugo, Verdi, Saint-Simon, Louis-Philippe, Mr Punch -with a full cast of dwarfs, hunchbacks and puppets, the portrait of Mr Dorian Grey and supported by the Thatre Grand Guignol de Montmartre
PART ONE: From Le Clair to Triboulet via Mayeux
PART TWO: Mocking the Womb
PART ONE: From Le Clair to Triboulet via Mayeux
1: Introduction: The Devil's Footprints in Mantua
Mantua is proud to be the birthplace of Virgil, who posthumously guided Dante through Hell. A modern guide to Mantua may surprise the opera-loving visitor by pointing to the houses of Rigoletto and of Sparafucile. It is evidence that Verdi's Rigoletto is powerful enough to have penetrated the world outside opera in every sense. Tongues may be firmly in Mantovan cheeks as these buildings are pointed out, for the opera-lover knows the characters to be fictional. Any opera dictionary will point to its source in Victor Hugo's Le Roi s'amuse of 1832 and explain how the censors allowed it to be staged with a Mantovan Duke in place of the French King Franois I. So Hugo's Triboulet, the evil jester, became Rigoletto and his daughter Blanche became Gilda. The story and characters are so strongly drawn as to suspend our disbelief and, if it is horrible, then so are many fairy tales and the setting is usually too remote to be threatening. "Grand Guignol" is the anachronistic description often applied and it is not entirely inappropriate. For the first critic of the Venice premire of 1851, it was a "Satanic" piece and he hoped that the composer, having got it out of his system, would now apply his skills to a worthier subject. Yet, far from being an entirely theatrical monster, Rigoletto may, after all, have had a real, if small, human model.
2: Different Faces: The Queen Sacks a Dwarf
The face of Rigoletto as exhibited in the familiar photos of Stracciari and Gobbi is of a vicious, cornered animal baring his teeth. In this icon, the concentrated essence of the hunchback jester may be reverting to his origins in the ttes d'expression or facial contortions which were the speciality of a Parisian dwarf called Le Clair.
"This man, a clown by nature, was very melancholy and possessed with a mad desire for friendship. All the time not occupied in practice and in giving his grotesque performances he spent in searching for a friend, and when he had been drinking, tears of solitude flowed freely from his eyes".
In these performances, given in low dives and cabarets, at the time of the Parisian July revolution of 1830, this inwardly melancholy man would express on his face the full range of the human passions. In this he was fully in accord with his age. The pseudo-sciences of Phrenology and Physiognomy were in full flood and Bishop Lavater's depiction of the human types had trickled down into popular journalism. It is pleasant to think that Le Clair cleverly managed to turn to his profit the oppressive notion that the outer shape of a man reflected his inner moral state. Whether he would in any way have been cheered to know that his friendless existence had been noted and that he was destined for a kind of immortality is uncertain.
Dwarfs, traditionally, had found protection at the courts of Kings and Princelings, enjoying a privileged and comfortable existence and appearing to relish the attention. One of the most celebrated in his day was Bertholde, whose ready wit greatly impressed Alboin, first King of Lombardy but his tricks made an enemy of the Queen. He so annoyed her that she had him seized and put in a sack, like a kitten, to await drowning the following day. He survived and later rose in favour so highly that Alboin appointed him Prime Minister. What Bertholde's ultimate fate was we do not know but legend says the murderous queen eventually poisoned her husband.
If the tales of Alboin's dwarf seemed remote in 1830, the habit of keeping dwarfs and freaks was not. Sir Robert Kerr Porter could relate in his Travels in Russia & Sweden of 1805 - 08 that hardly a nobleman existed in those regions who had not one or more of these "frisks of nature". By displaying dwarfs at court, it was felt their capacity for evil was kept in check. It was a Janus-faced response to these different people, an instinctive fear and distaste developing into the need both to control and appease. It did not stem from a recognition of their humanity. This ambivalence was superstitious and can be seen as an exact reflection of the traditional way to treat fairies. When we read of William and Mary attending the wedding of their own dwarf with that of Queen Henrietta Maria, it seems like a protective spell, inverting old tales of a bad fairy not invited to a Royal Wedding. When ordinary people would queue to be touched by deformed people and dwarfs for luck or to cast out illness, it was a homeopathic concept, touching affliction to relieve affliction. The stinging wit of the jester belongs to the same family of beliefs: his bitter medicine could purge ill humour, his sharp points could draw out bad blood.
The fate of the family dwarfs when revolution came would have been low down the list of French aristocratic concerns. In his loneliness and need to scratch a living, Le Clair reflected the plight of many small people, feeling the chill without their traditional patronage. He became available for public display in a less stable world, both symptom and emblem of it. Le Clair is remembered only because the cartoonist Travis saw him "when the great patriotic enthusiasm of July was still at its height. A luminous idea entered his brain. A cartoon dwarf called Mayeux was conceived, and for a long time afterward this same turbulent Mayeux talked, screamed, harangued, and gesticulated in the memory of the people of Paris."
Mayeux weighing the forbidden fruits, old and new style
3: Of the Forbidden Fruit, Free Love and the Curious Crime of Pearicide
Mayeux soon broke free of Travis and became a kind of genie who refused to be the spokesman of any single commentator. Political cartoons of the time were subject to censorship and a sophisticated sign language evolved. The adipose Louis-Philippe was turned into a pear and, with attempts to suppress its depiction, the pear usurped the apple's time-honoured position as the forbidden fruit. The deposed King Charles X was represented as a lobster for walking backwards over human rights. A very famous print featured Mayeux in the act of stabbing a pear. It bore the title "Le poiricide et le ******** ou comme on va de fil en aiguille" Translating and filling the blank with the forbidden word we get "Pearicide and Regicide or how one thing leads to another".
As the common property of illustrators, spilling his bile on all and sundry, this anarchic spirit could be double-edged and Elizabeth Menon has shown him to have been a regular scourge of the Saint-Simonists. This cult is normally described as an early form of Socialism though its appeal was to the rising technocratic class. Dividing Society into the useful, the improvable and the useless, Saint-Simon castigated the idle rich and the idle poor alike. In making these distinctions, Saint-Simon acknowledged his debt to the physiognomists. On his death, Infantin, the new leader, had more or less made Art a new sacrament and Beauty the highest virtue. For a time it could count Hector Berlioz among those interested and some commentators have found elements of Saint-Simon's technocratic utopia in his vision of Dido's Carthage.
The new lite were promised that the old moral codes could now be discarded and, with the new dawn, came a sexual awakening in the form of Free Love. The sight of a libidinous dwarf embracing these principles was amusing but double-edged: Mayeux was hump-backed as if carrying the past as a burden or holding the future in a parodic pregnancy. He was a sign of the past that could not be shaken off and the future that was struggling to be born. This is quite explicit in his repeated assertions that his hump represents a higher stage of human development and that it is better to land on your hump than your head. Elsewhere, he refers to his hump as a cushion, implying it gave a degree of protection to those who used him as their satirical mouthpiece.
The anarchic possibilities of Mayeux were taken further in at least two underground publications celebrating his priapic aspect. The jokes were hardy perennials, celebrating all the comedic possibilities of tumescence. There were also said to be five theatrical performances featuring Mayeux running simultaneously in 1830. He had his detractors and was attacked in one article as a "sybarite without morality or shame" but the manikin was at the height of his popularity and his image turned up on candlesticks and other souvenirs. Character merchandising did not begin with Disney and it is no exaggeration to say there was a thriving Mayeux industry, unconstrained by any form of copyright. His political, social and moral ambiguity did not hinder his popularity; people saw whatever they wanted in him. Victor Hugo saw him as "the Aesop of our times", so raising him from fable to fabulist and acknowledging him as a fellow-author.
The competitive Hugo brought forth not one but two fictional hunchbacks, neither of them dwarfs, into a country already captivated by the antics of Mayeux. Quasimodo, born 1831 and Triboulet, born the year after, have completely overshadowed their cartoon inspiration and outlived the political circumstances of their birth. The two constitute twin gargoyles or masks, not comedy and tragedy so much as pathos and pathology. Yet each embodies contradictions: Quasimodo is the more sentimental, a strong but inarticulate monster and his protective love towards Esmeralda provokes him into pouring boiling oil on the mob. Triboulet is a variant of the fool as political scourge with an apparent Achilles heel in his love for his daughter.
4: Mr Punch's Criminal Physiognomy
Because we associate them with their moonlit twentieth-century revival, the Commedia dell'arte figures of Columbine, Pantalone and Pulcinella can seem arty indeed. The arte of the name however indicated a low comedy, performed by travelling professional troupes of actors or artisans. The scenarios, many of which survive, were mere outlines and improvisation filled them out with topical humour and business. If tragedy looked back to Greek mysteries and myths, then these comedies could point to their own ancient lines, where heavy fathers, scheming servants and confused identities had been entertaining the crowded amphitheatres for centuries. Young lovers were allowed their own faces, being less set in a humour, but the old men and servants wore masks with hooked noses, beards and high cheekbones.
The masks of comedy depended on immediately recognizable characters while the pseudo-science of physiognomy proposed the reading of an individual face like a palm with each feature contributing hints. The external appearance would be scrutinized for signs of moral delinquency or sexual perversion and it was the prisons and hospitals which furnished the text-books with examples. Paris had taken to the commedia del arte early, finding in it a piquant blend of comedy and pathos but it was hardly to be expected that the spirit of France could express itself fully in the dreamy, wilting Pierrot. It would also take the name of Guignol, a cousin of Mr Punch and make him the patron Saint of a theatre of horror.
When Victor Hugo declared that the theatre must be a church, he was, in one very literal sense, sixty years ahead of his time. A disused chapel in the red-light district of Montmartre was to be the setting for a peculiarly Parisian form of theatre, whose name to this day denotes displays of gratuitous blood and cruelty. It began in 1897 with stories of True Crime, for its first owner was an ex-policeman and it soon became clear that the bloodiest spectacles were the greatest crowd-pleasers. Men were said to have fainted more often than women at the sight of the gougings and disembowellings, if only because they felt duty-bound not to cover their eyes. The Grand Guignol plays, which were without redemptive intent or literary merit, could be compared to the crescendo of violence in which Mr Punch dispatches his baby, his wife, his dog, the doctor, the hangman and the Devil himself. Both repeat the broadest strokes that best please the audience. Rigoletto is a great deal more sophisticated than this and our participation as voyeurs at the feast of rape, murder and sexual perversity is reflected on the stage by the heartless courtiers and, in the final scene, by Rigoletto himself. Although these mirrored behaiviours on the stage serve to implicate the audience, they also magnify the horror of a social setting which offers no defence to the victim.
5: M. Hugo's Hypertrophic Ego
For Jean Cocteau, Victor Hugo was the madman who believed he was Victor Hugo. In Spain, at the age of ten, he had witnessed a man crazy with terror, strapped on a donkey on his way to the garrotte. On the same trip, in Vitoria, he saw a dismembered Frenchman on a cross. His fascination with the themes of cruelty and suffering was life-long and can be seen as a manifestation of the Romantic Agony and as a posture. Yet Hugo's extremism was perfectly attuned to the landscape of his age, with which he seems to merge. The idea that Mind might penetrate Matter seems less ridiculous at a time of societal upheaval when politics, psychology, religion and art also become fluid and cross their customary boundaries. His imagination was hypertrophic but it was fed by an omnivorous appetite for experience. He did not flinch from witnessing terrible prison conditions at first hand and even his vision of Paris in the Middle Ages seems to have required frequent psychometric visits to the walls of Ntre-Dame. Inside and Outside coincide in him and he wasted no energy in the self-divisions and doubts which assailed and sabotaged other Romantic giants. His ego could contain multitudes without apparent discomfort. It was this ability to thrive on the contradictions of his age which ensured that underlying questions about Hugo's sanity were effectively drowned out by the noisy evidence of his undisputed material success.
Hugo's reputation was made early and became strangely independent of the quality of the work. The sheer volume of his output was in part the result of a rational and businesslike approach to his art, setting himself daily production targets and meeting them. At the same time, Hugo had the confidence of an inspired prophet or medium and it is not hard to find evidence of automatic writing in even the best of his works. It seems fitting that Les Miserables, should contain both a description of punishment on the galleys and some of the longest sentences ever written. Verdi famously used the image of escape from the galleys to describe how success had enabled him to focus on improving his art. Hugo, in contrast, went on with unflagging energy, even making provision for his prophetic works to appear for years after his death. It was as if he could not envisage the world continuing without him at the oars.
Posterity has a way of treating sheer bulk by sieve or by chisel and Hugo has endured the latter, surviving mainly by adaptation, contemporary and modern. His creations have continued to make their appeal more or less over the heads of critics and his visions survive in somewhat sweetened form on the stages of today. The Hunchback of Ntre Dame has undergone domestication as a Disney cartoon while the epic of the dispossessed, Les Miserables, has become a beacon for coach-parties.
6: Hugo's Warty Truth and the Hairy Poets
As a play, Hugo's Cromwell, 1827, the Napoleonic nightmare disguised as English history, impressed nobody but, in the Preface, he set out a literary manifesto. Shakespeare's Art, under the tutelage of Christianity, had admitted the warty Truth which the classics had excluded. This view of the English bard as a realist who violated the unities and dared to delineate human nature in all its variety was not new. What mattered was Hugo's intention to apply these methods in a bid to renew the French Drama, which still observed the classical decorum of Corneille and Racine. He gave fair warning that the excluded Sublime and Grotesque were staking a claim to strut their hours upon the stage.
Explaining why it had decided to stage Hernani in 1830, the Thtre-Franais declared how it owed a duty to the public to show "how far the human mind can go astray when it is freed of every rule and all decorum". The hysteria over Hernani seems now to have been a warning tremor of the July Revolution which was to depose Charles X and the event was planned like a military campaign. The Latin Quarter was trawled to recruit long-haired poets and art students to pack the theatre for the premire. By the time the curtain went up, a first rate scandal was assured. The explosion of indignation at the very first line of the play, which violated all the rules, ensured a massive and factional audience at every subsequent house. It has been said that the play was a necessary evil and the real triumph was in composing the audience. The truth, as Zola was to remark, a little enviously, was that "The classical edifice had been crumbling for years. Hugo arrived at the eleventh hour and gave it a push".
7: Triboulet Serving Dorian Grey
The impact of the English Shakespeare performances in Paris in 1827, now most celebrated for the romance of Berlioz and Henrietta Smithson, had inspired Hugo to complete his stalled epic Cromwell. Now, in Le Roi s'amuse, 1832, Hugo took elements of King Lear and his Fool and crammed them both into the hunchback Mayeux to produce Triboulet. The bitter commentator and fond foolish father are rolled into the frame of a deformed Lord of Misrule. Dwarfism as such was no longer so visible in this hybrid character but in Mayeux, the Parisian public had its own court jester to compare with the one on stage. With abduction, rape and murder in the offing, it is telling that what caused the first and only performance of 1832 to collapse was Triboulet's sneer that the aristocrats of the court, and by implication most of the audience, were the illegitimate offspring their fathers had sired on their lackeys. Though it was published, the play would not be revived in Paris for fifty years.
The play is set historically at the court of King Franois I but Hugo clearly intended his jester to vent his spleen on the corrupt government of Louis-Philippe. Triboulet is the evil genius of the young King, a Falstaff whose corruption has been allowed to penetrate the seat of power. In this Kingdom of Evil, Triboulet will seem to be laid low by his saving grace in a simple inversion of the pattern where a tragic flaw brings down the hero. Yet, as Hugo makes plain in his preface, the hunchback's stifling protection of his daughter is not a healthy trait. The isolated and immured Blanche is herself a symptom of the sickness of the city and she cannot wait to escape from her prison. She is kept ignorant of her own origin and of her father's profession. This remote house of the hunchback, quite apart from his work at court, seems an unlikely feature of society at the time of Franois I. It is however a perfect mirror of the nineteenth century, where a bourgeois household could be founded on corruption. With diagrammatic simplicity, Triboulet instructs his virtual son in weapons as he surrounds his supposed daughter with walls.
The King, or Duke as he becomes in Piave's libretto, is normally described as a libertine. His tenor voice, the flippancy of his key arias, his inconstancy, which he projects onto women can make him seem a lighter relative of Don Giovanni. His lack of conscience appears to insulate him from the consequences of his own misdeeds. If the deformed jester can enact his sins through the young and beautiful King, then the jester can be seen as the King's moral portrait, the picture in the attic who shows moral corruption in his frame. This Dorian Grey aspect to the story may seem fanciful but Hugo has explicitly used a painting as a reproach in the play, where the ever-absent Queen looks down from the wall at the debauchery in the palace. There is a darker side to this apparently careless seducer: women are weightless in themselves for him. What he desires is another man's wife, another man's mistress or another man's daughter. In a line omitted from the libretto, the King's order on entering the Inn in the final scene is for "A jug of wine and your sister". Sparafucile may or may not be really Maddelena's brother but the idea certainly whets the King's appetite.
8: Hugo Experiments with Triadic Living
Victor Hugo's private life was highly unconventional. From 1830 he was sharing his wife Adle with his friend the critic Sainte-Beuve. Behind this toleration lay an earlier tragic episode where a third party had been drawn to her. As the young Victor attracted the attention of King Louis XVIII and was awarded a pension for the royalist sentiments of his verses, his brother Eugne descended into madness. The illness manifested itself in 1823 as a psychopathic jealousy of Victor, not on account of his literary success but because of his marriage. The next year Eugne was confined to the asylum at Charenton and died there in 1837, after over fourteen years of insanity, unvisited by his ever more celebrated brother.
Some years later Hugo announced to his long-term mistress, Juliette Drouet, that after a four month trial period he would decide whether to keep her or replace her with his more recent acquisition, Lonie Biard. Accordingly, the mornings and afternoons were spent with Juliette and the evenings with Lonie. These experiments in triadic living, of which the world at the time was ignorant, took place respectively from 1830, around the time of the writing of Le roi s'amuse and in 1851, the year it was turned into Rigoletto. Hugo was said to have been a virgin until his wedding-night but, after this late start, his sexual appetites were to be as prodigious as his other activities and may, if anything, have increased with age. His triumphant return to Paris in 1870, when he was lionized, ensured that his nightly orgies with multiple partners were common knowledge.
9: Blanche Misses a Month and Dies for Kicks
Hugo viewed Triboulet as "Entirely evil". Blanche is his physical child who escapes her father's deformity only to fall in love with his spiritual child, the amoral King. In Triboulet's contrasting nurture of his virtual children, the boy to active vice, the girl to passive virtue, he is an entirely bad father. Hugo, it is true, draws back from an explicit condemnation of patriarchy. There was too much of the patriarch in his own nature for him to describe this bridge between the private and the political in theoretical terms. Yet the play articulates it perfectly: private virtue in a Kingdom of vice, the home as fortress and denial, the sexes in opposition. It is a very modern analysis, once we look beyond the cap and bells.
In its picture of a depraved court, nothing will come near Le Roi s'amuse until Wilde's Salome. Yet even Salome has in Jokanaan a figure of moral authority, though Wilde plays off religious and sexual obsession as equally perverse. In contrast there is no moral centre at all in Hugo's play. Blanche's self-sacrifice for a faithless lover is a diabolic parody of Christian self-denial. Her death, with eyes fully open to the nature of the King, is an act of extreme masochism without any redemptive aspect. The Biblical ante-type of the final scene is an Old Testament one: that of the substitute victim provided for Abraham in place of his son Isaac. Sparafucile as an aspect of Triboulet himself will not slay his spiritual son. Blanche will annihilate herself in his place. Triboulet tries to keep separate what he does from what he is, a hope that cannot withstand the power of a woman whose inner emptiness will devour her. The modern psychology of perversion proposes that by a deep-seated mental process extreme humiliation is turned to triumph by its re-enactment for sexual pleasure.
Elsewhere, the perversity of the play hinges on the troilism of the King and the voyeurism of his court. The latter is explicit in the scene where the courtiers withdraw but continue to watch the aftermath of Blanche's rape. In the final scene, the cruelty of Triboulet's insistence that Blanche witness her own betrayal is magnified if we uncover what the libretto obscures or reveals only in a frequently-omitted stage direction: she has been the King's mistress for a month. We witness Blanche enter the Inn rather as we witness Clytemnestra entering her accursed house. It is not immediately obvious why an act of self-sacrifice by entering a dark house cannot be noble. It could be the suggestion of an animal going to the slaughter; Blanche goes willingly but there is less contrast with the ignorant Clytemnestra than we might expect. For a sacrifice to appear noble it has to be public and ideally out of doors so that the spirit can fly free of the earthly plane. An old dark house just swallows the body and shuts the door fast.
10: Horrible Events
There are too many mysterious aspects of Verdi's operas for the modern view of him as entirely a professional man of the theatre, dedicated only to effectiveness, to be entirely satisfying. His gruff persona has much in common with Brahms or Richard Strauss, fighting shy of any flyblown aesthetical nonsense. A pride in craftsmanship, for these men, seemed to be a way of warding off too much scrutiny of the wellsprings of their art. Modern commentators have followed their lead and stressed their industry, resilience and skills in the marketplace. But nothing Verdi said will cast any light on the question of why the murder of a parent's own child in place of another is the catastrophe which ends Rigoletto as well as the off-stage seed event of Il Trovatore.
The libretto of Il Trovatore is the classic case cited where motivation is obscured in a rush of horrible events. By stranding certain events, relationships and situations so that they seem to writhe like landed fish on the boards of the stage, Verdi and his librettists were allowing them a deliberate and dangerous life of their own. Whatever Verdi was about, he was not just setting plays to music. By looking at the opera as an artifact, it may well float free of not only its original sources but also of the avowed intentions of composer and librettist. It is not an abuse of an opera to view it in this existential and unhistorical vacuum. We may join the dots to obtain an unauthorized and maybe obscene picture but it is not imposing a freely-imagined picture on a resisting text. If the meanings are unintended, they still contribute something to the complex of feelings evoked by these works of art which trade in the deeply irrational.
The second half of this short study will approach Rigoletto from a different direction to that taken in the first half. There is no attempt at an overall view. Each section approaches the work from a new angle so that this apparently solid and well-built piece is made to render a succession of meanings, many of them certainly unintended and some perhaps quite diabolical.
PART TWO: Mocking the Womb
11: The Year 1851 and a Lost Key
Hugo's politics were never separable from personal ambition though, carried away by his own rhetoric, he could alienate his supporters by displays of independence. By the end of 1851, Louis Napoleon had dissolved the National Assembly and made himself Prince-President. Hugo joined the resistance which was swiftly put down. The faithful Juliette smuggled him out of Paris under a false identity and they fled to Brussels. His exile from France would last nineteen years, mostly to be spent on the Island of Jersey. Exactly how radical Hugo's politics appeared outside France is hard to say but Verdi's proposed opera on Le Roi s'amuse, even after twenty years, clearly alarmed the Austro-Hungarian authorities in Venice.
Verdi, perennially postponing King Lear, a score so dear to him that he could never bear to write it, saw at once the parallels in Le Roi s'amuse and Piavé assured the composer that the authorities would not object. He was completely wrong. Word came from the censor's office that the subject was an impossible one and the letter went so far as to forbid any further discussion. By then, Verdi had totally committed himself to the project, so new approaches were made. The regicidal plot of Le Roi s'amuse would hardly have gladdened the hearts of the authorities, yet there is reason to think the play was regarded as genuinely disgusting and amoral. The absolute ban followed by the nearly complete capitulation to the composer's wishes suggests that the initial reaction was an individual's gut reaction to the drama. The events of the play are indeed too peculiar to be effective political propaganda. Its very lack of a redemptive or moral agenda made it unlikely to inspire political action. Its corrupt world, like that of an evil demi-urge cannot be reformed and is only to be escaped in death.
The one scene the censor still insisted was not set and which does not appear in the opera is one in which Blanche, brought before the King, recognizes her supposed student-lover and runs away. She takes refuge in the King's bedroom and he follows her in, locking the door. The censors took umbrage at the key, recognizing its symbolism. The scene's suppression is not a disaster: it means we do not see Gilda at the palace until she emerges from her ordeal.
Otherwise, by the standards of the time, the opera is a very faithful adaptation of the play. Piavé slightly mitigates the poisonous atmosphere of the court. Hugo's jester is an evil figure, a misanthrope who corrupts and brutalizes the King. The dissolute court, including the King, is seen to be his puppet-show and the King's amours are instigated by his jester who directs him this way and that to see him mired in depravity. Triboulet is responsible for this very young man's sexual initiation and the King is psychologically dependent on him. Piavé's libretto does not disguise the jester's mischief-making but paints his rôle in the court as more monkey than organ-grinder. The Duke seems more than capable of arranging his own amours, leaving Rigoletto to add insults to the injuries he inflicts. Piavé's jester still rubs salt into wounds but he is seen as a symptom of the corruption rather than its origin.
12: Forty Days of Darkness
The forty days Verdi spent writing down Rigoletto seem leisurely compared to the four day period Hugo is said to have spent writing the play and it seems to have called on the deepest and darkest levels of Verdi's creative personality. He puts flesh and blood onto Hugo's gibbering skeletons, preventing the alienation and nausea they might otherwise provoke. Instead,we are plunged from one emotion to another and kept in the world of feeling. It is only when we pause to think about any of the characters that our sympathy is withdrawn. The music demands our human sympathies for Gilda and Rigoletto himself. Even the Duke is allowed his moments of emotional warmth, as he savours the new sensation of love and his cynical philosophy is sweetened by his excellent tunes, one of them probably the best known of all arias. As a succession of pretexts for song Rigoletto measures up handsomely, yet it is impossible not to feel that the composer was inspired by a creative misunderstanding of the drama. Opera is an art capable of redeeming the alienated world by infusing it with feeling. Verdi found in the libretto exactly what he wanted and ended with a prayer not a post-mortem.
13: All About Gilda
The notion of a beautiful girl mysteriously sprung from the loins of an outcast figure is very familiar from The Merchant of Venice and The Jew of Malta. In each case the daughter is equated with a miser's hoard, like gold unhealthily kept from circulation. Somehow to involve the outcast figure with the liberation of his own goods appears to be the highest goal in this kind of blood-sport. But is Gilda really Rigoletto's daughter? We have only his word for it. The child may have been foisted on him as a joke by some previous dissolute court. If he does treat her as a daughter, could it be that he is impotent? Her chaperone is happy to be bribed when the Duke craves entry, so we may even wonder if the father-daughter scenario is a special game which Gilda is ready to play for the hunchback. A taste for perverse sex is awakened or deepened by her rape. If she is raped by the Duke. She speaks of a dishonour which implies it.
Whatever happens in the bedroom, she is curiously empowered by something she calls Love and is prepared to dress as a man and be annihilated in a sordid house of assignation for the sake of it. As Rigoletto plans to move on, we sense that it will not be for the first time. Gilda's origin may lie in disguised identities as surely as her fate is to be murdered in travesty. Rounded at both ends in mystery, her life has a sublime uncertainty. The obscure origins of a heroine are conventionally a sign that aristocratic lineage will be revealed in the last act for a good marriage to be possible. There is no such happy ending for Gilda, though she finds her way back into a womb of sorts, in the shape of the sack. Verdi instinctively felt he needed the sack for verisimilitude and it was one of the details he fought for with the censor.
We are so accustomed to operatic heroines being put through their vocal paces in a mixed banquet of arias illustrative of extreme states of mind that to ask for a centre to the personality may seem irrelevant. Can Gilda ever be anything more than a succession of arias and ensembles? We do not ask the same question of the Duke or Rigoletto or Sparafucile as their music covers a range of feelings which delineates a personality. Gilda's supposed rape and self-sacrifice are events which are not fully explored in her music. To a large extent the off-scene rape derives its power from its musical denial in Rigoletto's pretended good-humour and the indifference of the court. This is a scene of genius but it leaves Gilda unsupported in every sense.
14: Rigoletto: How Evil do you want me?
Rigoletto, especially clothed in Verdi's sympathetic music, may be the evil creature who fools us all, including his creators. Is it far-fetched to view him as a totally evil and a consummate puppet-master who allows the courtiers to think they have fooled him? His house, guarded by an easily-corrupted chaperone, is a honey-trap he has baited well. Gilda, like many a kept woman may be uncertain of her own identity and happy to play any rôle she is assigned, even daughter to a hunchback, if it pleases him. She is even happier to welcome a potent young man into her garden. Her month-long affair with the Duke may have reduced Rigoletto's own grasp on them both temporarily but showing Gilda how she is being already betrayed may focus her mind on more material matters. If it doesn't, there will be other tools. If Rigoletto's blindfold does not really blind him then the final contents of the sack cannot entirely surprise him. If he is acting throughout, we may, by a diabolical twist, see his apparent despair as laughter and the whole opera as the most diabolical of true comedies.
15: The Substituted Sacrifice
The curse does not properly belong to Christianity but is a form of superstition, and a symptom of the breakdown of a system of belief. For this reason curses are wild cards with a tendency to rebound and spread without real moral meaning. Diabolic powers have been invoked and will not be constrained by any human intentions. Typically what a man holds most sacred will be violated by the demonic force let out of the bottle. It is the nature of a curse to reveal the unbounded nature of a man's unacknowledged appetites. The curses in Rigoletto are made by living men and take effect after they are dead.
Monterone's curse in act I is directed equally at the Duke and his jester. In act III, Sparafucile and his sister argue over which of them is to be killed. The death of the Duke will satisfy the assassin's professional sense of honour but violate his sister's aesthetics. In their casual life and death debate, these evil spirits resort to a game of chance. In the event it is not by dice or cards but by an Old Testament way of testing providence: they will see if God or Fate will provide a substitute victim. The story of Abraham & Isaac marks a turn towards symbolic sacrifice but in this diabolic variant, the father, acting through an agent, will kill his own daughter. Sparafucile does not know he has been hired to commit regicide but he has little concept of any order beyond that of the contract. The curse of Monterone has no effect on the Duke. What appears to be accursed is the state of fatherhood itself and the Duke has no conception of it.
16: Last Orders at a Disreputable Inn
In Rigoletto, Verdi begins to play with the conventions of the number-opera to suggest actions breaking in on actions, as in the abduction scene. The wordless choral voices in the storm were a startling innovation in 1851, serve to throw a tertium quid into the gap between pure music and song. If the figures in an apocalypse are reduced to their elements, the elements themselves strain towards human shape. In contrast, the Duke's show-stopping number "La donna è mobile" is treated as an artifact, cut and pasted like an object, unchanged and incapable of change, to signal his survival. He is too light to be pulverized. It is on hearing the sound of this reprised aria that Rigoletto is compelled to open the sack to gaze on the supposed Duke in much the same way as Salome satisfies herself with the head of John the Baptist. As in Salome, the once-human prize has been the subject of some hard bargaining. Yet Rigoletto does not get the dish he ordered from this disreputable inn. The universe is in turmoil and murder is just another process by which the human becomes an object. In this finale even a corpse can't be relied on to be itself.
Piavé's libretto is much less stark at the end than Hugo's play where a doctor subjects Blanche's corpse to a bathetic post-mortem as a crowd of morbid onlookers gathers around. This Büchner-like scene would have been impossible for a nineteenth century composer to even consider setting to music. Piavé ends instead with the duet, which allows the pious hope that a loving Father in Heaven may wipe away all tears. The irony of this coda added to an opera that has flayed patriarchy to the bone, despite the composer's evident sympathies, is a special bitter pleasure that has developed in the bottle over the years and which could never have been anticipated in 1851. In Rigoletto, the full awfulness of the story is mitigated by the sympathy the music prompts from the composer. Or we could turn it about and say that the music serves as a highly efficient delivery-system for the playwright's unpalatable ideas. Though he initially resisted the idea of his work being turned into an opera, Victor Hugo had the honesty to admit that Verdi had, in many respects, improved on the drama .
17: Pretended Family Relationships
We know that Sparafucile is Rigoletto's shadow-self, he acknowledges it himself in Pari siamo! His tongue and the assassin's dagger are related weapons. Similarly, Maddelena is a reflection of Gilda: highly-sexed and capable of taking the initiative, after an initial display of coyness. The pretended family relationship between the Burgundian Sparafucile and his Gypsy sister reflects the relationship of Rigoletto to his daughter which may be equally questionable. There is nothing to suggest that Hugo, Piave or Verdi himself entertained this interpretation. To Hugo, Triboulet's parental protection was the equal and opposite reaction to his poisonous influence at court. He needs to keep the world ugly to maintain his daughter's dependence. She is even kept as ignorant of his profession as she is of his double nature: the after-rape scene should carry this further insult to her injury, that for the first time she sees her father in his jester's costume. The intention, I think is that Gilda's over-protection has inflamed her libidinous imagination. The hall of mirrors murder does play itself out, however, in keeping with a sexual motive that the authors may well have chosen not to acknowledge. If Gilda is stabbed by Sparafucile, her father's representative and Gilda is standing for the Duke, then the murder stands for some suppressed desire by the jester for an unmediated experience of his master's vice.
18: Mocking the Womb
From Richard III to Mr Punch, there would seem to be a psychological connection between the idea of a hunchback and ideas of infanticide and murder. A misbegotten thing himself, the hunchback carries on his shoulders a mockery of the fertile womb. A suspicion that the hump may be a sack concealing a crime seems to lurk behind the vile events of the last act of Rigoletto.
Hugo was an instinctive rather than intellectual writer and in describing Le roi s'amuse as a critique of patriarchy, I am not suggesting that Hugo had any such explicit agenda. His hatred of tyranny was real enough but stemmed from an ego that would acknowledge no law but its own. Neither he nor Verdi were the likeliest critics of patriarchy, both establishing what were effectively industries in their own names. Yet the power of Rigoletto stems from an authentic collision of the Evil Kingdom with the Blessed Home, or private virtue and public squalor.
19: Lords of Misrule
The Roman Saturnalia was the season governed by the baleful planet. Under Saturn, the world was turned upside down, masters would wait on their servants and a Lord of Misrule would be elected from among them. Like the Jewish Festival of Purim, or the Christian election of the Boy Bishops, these seasons of the fool served as releases from a world otherwise strictly bound by laws and observances. The madness of the season served to make the normal rules appear necessary and natural. Triboulet-Rigoletto is the malign Falstaff who has not been thrown off and whose season of misrule has continued beyond Twelfth Night. Justice has been suspended indefinitely and the conclusion does not restore order, keeping us tied entirely to a world ruled not by a deity but by the ricocheting vengeance of curses.
20: Shakespeare Rewrites Le Roi s'amuse in 1854
During his exile in Jersey, Victor Hugo and his circle were much affected by the craze for table-turning and spirit writing which swept Europe and America in the middle of the nineteenth century. At their sittings, the spirit of Shakespeare told how Hugo's latest writings were received in Heaven, where he read them aloud to an audience of angels. Along with these insights into the doings of the departed and the revelation that French was now the Bard's preferred language, some more sustained productions were relayed back to earth, including a most remarkable play.
Opening with a Faustian wager between Heaven and Hell, as to whether the wickedest of all men could be redeemed, the action centres on a King, here Louis XV, who abducts a maiden, the delightfully named Nihila on her wedding day. "Thirsty for human sap" the King is no longer roused by "rather old" fifteen year olds but his appetite is reawakened at the prospect of drinking "husband and the wife in one brimming glass".
Under a thin coating of symbolism, the play manages to be relentlessly obscene but is probably most remarkable for its bedchamber scene in which furniture, ceiling, lilies, bed, lamp and alcove converse and the final scene in which the dead King debates with worms and coffin nails. Probably Colette's scenario for L'Enfant et les sortilèges comes closest to it in earthly literature, but there is nothing to suggest that Hugo's circle thought they were writing a whimsical comedy.
Victor Hugo deliberately absented himself from the sittings which produced the play when he recognized echoes of an earlier poem in the Prologue. His son Charles, who did participate, was known to reproduce his father's style mediumistically but never as himself. The presiding spirit, however, was clearly the author of Le Roi s'amuse and the whole episode serves to illustrate the peculiar magnetism of a creative personality which could speak through others.
James Beswick Whitehead, 2001