This spring, I was the Assistant Director on two operas; one production of Rigoletto with Bernard Uzan at Michigan Opera Theatre, and a production of Tosca with Massimo Gasparon, an Italian director and designer, at Palm Beach Opera. Massimo is doing a new production of Rigoletto this summer at the Sferisterio Festival in Macerata, Italy, which I'm sure will be gorgeous.
In working on Rigoletto for the first time, I found a great little book that breaks down the derivations from the play, Le roi s'amuse, by Victor Hugo. It's in a "Masterworks of Opera" series by Charles Osborne. Here are some fun notes from the book:
• Le roi s'amuse was arguably banned because it was seen as an "incitement to rebellion," yet in Rigoletto, the censored bits, like showing Gilda in the Duke's bedroom, were mostly due to perceived indecency, like how the FCC won't let us say "ass" on TV.
• Quote from Hugo: "It is precisely when there is no censorship that authors must censor themselves, honestly, conscientiously, severely. It is thus that they raise the dignity of art. When one has complete liberty, it behooves one to keep within bounds."
• Hugo loosely based his story on Triboulet, historic jester to Louis XII and Francis I, the Duke being fashioned after the alleged shenanigans of King Francis I.
• However, the military censors required them to distance the opera from the French play, so they had to change all the character names, and change the French King into an Italian Duke from the same period, the Duke of Mantua: Federico II of Gonzaga. (take a deep breath and say Gonzaga three times -- it's fun.)
• To add a third Wikipedia bio in there, you could also argue that Verdi and Piave were REALLY talking about their hometown honey, Carlo III, c.1849. The fun fact about young Carlo: he was so despised that he was stabbed in the street when he was only 30, probably by a hired assassin, much like Rigoletto wanted to do to the Duke.
• Monterone was based on M. de Saint-Vallier, father of Diane de Poitiers, Countess of Breze. So she's no street urchin.
• Sparafucile was based on Saltabadil -- when he identifies himself in the opera as Borgognone (from Bologna) the reference really refers to the line in the play, where he says he's a gypsy from Burgundy (I'd love to change that line to make it clearer). His sister, Maddelena, was Maguelonne, and apparently lacked the compassion that so desperately flows from our love-struck Maddelena.
• Marullo was no courtier in the play but the court poet, Maître Clement Marot, so he was also in service to the King, which is arguably why Rigoletto appeals to him in Act II. This brings up the political themes of Hugo, for a big part of Triboulet/Rigoletto's bitterness is that he is helpless in this monarchy - he is a servant, can't do anything else, probably can't own his own property - and Marullo is also part of this game: the livelihood of even a great artist is dependent on the whims of the idiot monarchy.
• Bernard would lament in rehearsal that he hated the "La maledizione" line that ends the opera. In the play, the ending was a much more public scene, with onlookers and a doctor. Triboulet ends by crying, "I've killed my child." Arguably Piave's scene is much more intimate and links the curse thematically to the rest of the show -- however, depending on how the singer does it, it can be seen as a cop out: he's not taking responsibility for his vile actions and just blaming 'that old man's curse.'
• The dance the courtiers do in Act One is a perigordino, a fiesty French country dance from the region of Périgord. However, the music in that section is usually done too slowly to really be a gig. It's often staged more as a sexy minuet.
There are also a few things that are unclear about the piece that I'd love to crack:
• The first duet between Rigoletto and Gilda is very vague in terms of action, and as a result is very boring. There is no sense of time of day, activity, nothing. It's even more boring if they love each other perfectly and have a perfectly open, communicative, father-daughter relationship. I think the tragedy of the opera is not that they love each other and she dies; it's that she dies just when they are beginning to have a true connection to each other.
• Giovanna is also rather boring, but says some kooky things that don't fit as a doting nurse. I honestly think she is trying to sell Gilda's virginity to the highest bidder, right under her father's nose. In those days, even some parents would have done that, rather than supply a huge dowry for a daughter. That's also why some girls went straight to convents, which Gilda does. There should be a palpable threat of Gilda becoming a courtesan, and Rigoletto should know this and decide to avoid it at whatever cost.
• The very first lines of the opera, where the Duke talks about some sweetheart to Borsa, are kindof ridiculous. There is no way anyone would ever put it together that he's talking about our dazzlingly beautiful heroine soprano. My only fix is to use some of that preshow music to visualize this part of the plot that has happened before the opera begins. Maybe the church reception where they meet (which would have a been a pickup joint then, just as it is now) morphs into his own private party.
• The third act is really perfect drama. Hugo was really jealous that Verdi could have so many people singing at once and you knew exactly what they were thinking and feeling. However, how much time passes from Act II to Act III? The action is so intense is seems within a few days. Yet Rigoletto has a cryptic line that he's been waiting thirty days, dressed as the jester, for this moment. I think if that line is translated literally, there should be some supertitle to say that time has passed, and everyone's moved on really, except Rigoletto can't shake his thirst for vengeance.
So the biggest moment of censorship is the moment before Gilda enters in Act II. There is a whole scene in the play where Gilda is brought before the Duke; she realizes who he is and flees to hide (in his bedroom). He goes in after her. So we are left with the questions:
How does Gilda feel about the Duke lying about his identity?
Does the Duke rape her? Do they even have sex? Does Gilda enjoy it? Is she wearing her own clothes or is she forced to throw on some of his pajamas? Does the Duke still think she might be his true love? Does Gilda? All of this could get foggy when Gilda's in front of her father. I'd like to see her for a moment sometime before she meets him, even if it's before Rigoletto's entrance.
There are lots of other details I could chew on, but these are the main points for me. In any case, this is a Verdi masterpiece that a director or conductor could spend a lifetime on.