Viewpoint: A Touch of the Poet


Viewpoint Hugo sm 113
Victor Hugo
© adoc-photos/Lebrecht Music & Arts 2013

Rigoletto has been part of the Metropolitan Opera's repertory since November 1883, when the company presented Verdi's opera — then a relatively new work, only thirty-two years old — as part of its inaugural season. Since then, Rigoletto has become one of the most frequently performed works in Met history; as of the close of the 2010–11 season, Rigoletto had been presented by the Met 841 times in New York and on tour. The opera has returned to the Met this season in a new production by Tony Award-winning stage director Michael Mayer that will be broadcast as part of The Met: Live in HD on February 16.

When Rigoletto had its world premiere, in Venice in 1851, Verdi's name was less well-known than that of Victor Hugo, whose play Le Roi s'Amuse was the basis for Francesco Maria Piave's Rigoletto libretto. Hugo (1802–85) was one of nineteenth-century France's great men of letters and ideas, a poet, novelist, playwright and essayist of extraordinary passion and integrity. Hugo's work had enormous influence on the musicians of his time; his poetry was set to music by Bizet, Wagner, Hahn, Massenet, Saint-Saëns, Fauré and Franck, as well as by his friends Franz Liszt and Hector Berlioz. Although Hugo's plays, Romantic in scope and peopled with vivid characters, are best remembered today for the scores of operas they inspired — including familiar titles by Donizetti (Lucrezia Borgia), Verdi (Ernani as well as Rigoletto) and Ponchielli (La Gioconda) — two Hugo novels, Les Misérables (1862) and Notre-Dame de Paris (1831), are still admired for their raw, uncompromising power and compelling narratives. Les Misérables, of course, is the inspiration for the 1985 musical phenomenon by Claude-Michel Schönberg — a smash-hit advertised as "seen by sixty million people worldwide" and recently treated to a big-budget screen adaptation. Notre-Dame de Paris, more familiar to English-speaking audiences from its various movie incarnations as The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, had its first musical adaptation in 1836, when Louise Bertin's opera, La Esmeralda, bowed at Paris's Théâtre de l'Académie Royale de Musique. The text was by Hugo himself, marking his sole venture as a librettist.

Bertin (1805–77) came from a family of journalists: her father and later her brother were editors of the newspaper Journal des Débats. She studied music from an early age and had her first opera, an adaptation of Walter Scott's Guy Mannering, performed privately when she was twenty years old. A second opera, Le Loup-garou (1827), was a moderate success at the Opéra Comique, but the scheduled premiere of Bertin's next stage work, Fausto, was canceled in 1830 when diva Maria Malibran refused to sing the role of Margherita as promised. La Esmeralda — its title taken from the name of the central female character in Notre-Dame de Paris — was the fruit of Bertin's friendship with Hugo, who admired her talent enormously, as did Berlioz, who supervised the Esmeralda rehearsals. Despite the beauty and originality of Bertin's work and a starry cast — Cornélie Falcon, who created Rachel in La Juive and Valentine in Les Huguenots, was the first Esmeralda — the initial run of La Esmeralda was marked by violent accusations of press and government favoritism made by political opponents of Bertin's family, with the seventh performance ending in a near-riot. Although Bertin continued to compose music in a variety of forms for the rest of her life, she never wrote another opera — nor did Victor Hugo. spacer 


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