Shadow of a King

Verdi's dream of setting King Lear never came to fruition, but the Shakespearean dimensions of the troubled father–daughter relationship he created in Rigoletto give opera-lovers a pretty good idea of what the composer might have done with the Bard's great tragedy. GARRY WILLS traces the connection.

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Ian McKellen and Romola Garai Lear and Cordelia in Trevor Nunn's staging of King Lear for the Royal Shakespeare Company, 2007
© RSC/Manuel Harlan 2013
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Victor Hugo was diffuse in pointing out his cleverness. Verdi cut to essentials.
© adoc-photos/Lebrecht Music & Arts 2013
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© INTERFOTO/Alamy 2013

As Verdi kept challenging himself, opera by opera, to be better, newer, deeper, he searched hungrily for dramatic vehicles that would allow (or force) him to press onward. That alone explains his quixotic belief that he could get a forbidden Paris play past the censors in Italy. Victor Hugo's Le Roi s'Amuse (The King Has Fun) was banned from the stage after its clamorous opening night in 1832. It was then kept off the French stage until 1882, just three years before Hugo's death — by which time Hugo had already attended the opera Verdi made from his play's printed text. The play was condemned by King Louis Philippe's government as lewd, regicidal and grotesque. It showed a cruel king betraying his wife to seduce a girl, and the girl's father, the king's jester, plotting to kill the king in revenge. Verdi was sure that this lurid story was what he needed for his next dramatic development, and he wrestled the story past great resisting efforts from Austrian officials in Venice. Why was he so determined? 

The answer lies in one word — Shakespeare. Verdi wrote to Francesco Piave, his librettist, that the play's hunchback "is a creation worthy of Shakespeare" and "one of the greatest creations that the theater of all countries and all times can boast." The Shakespeare connection was clear in Verdi's head; he was already shaping the hunchback's music for the singer who had played Macbeth in the only Shakespeare play he had (so far) set to music. Four years earlier, he had coached Felice Varesi to play Macbeth in a "gothically" realistic way. Varesi was short and not handsome, but he possessed the vocal and dramatic power Verdi felt Shakespeare called for. He was a natural for the new part of the hunchback. 

Shakespeare also filled Verdi's mind at just this moment because the composer was mulling over a libretto for the dream project of his life — to make an opera of his favorite Shakespeare play, King Lear. He had worked at that dream off and on but was now closely considering its shape as an opera with his librettist, Salvatore Cammarano. Julian Budden is right to think that Rigoletto is haunted by King Lear. And Il Re Lear would no doubt have been seen as haunted by Rigoletto, had it ever been completed. One can see constant traces of Lear in Rigoletto. The key to all the similarities is the crucial relationship between a father and his daughter. 

Verdi was always deeply moved and moving when he wrote about this tie, though no one has ever explained why it fascinated him. His first child, true, was a daughter, Virginia, but she died at sixteen months. He never had the opportunity to interchange affection with her, as he arranged for Luisa Miller to do with her father, or Amelia with Boccanegra, or Aida with Amonasro, among others.

Rigoletto, the hunchbank jester of the work, lives only for his daughter, Gilda, who does not know about his demeaning life at the Duke of Mantua's court. After a crowded scene at the raucously dissolute court, and after a lonely scene in a dark alley, Rigoletto emerges into the bright serenity of his daughter's protected world. There he has stored up all his sequestered love. He asks her to live above the sordidness he knows all too well, just the two of them in their protected isolation. It is like the scene in which Lear, finally reunited with Cordelia, renounces the world that has extruded him and says the two of them must live apart from it, watching political entanglements without their own personal involvement, seeing

Who loses and who wins, who's in,
who's out,
And take upon's the mystery of things
As if we were God's spies.

When Gilda asks about his family, Rigoletto says she is his "family, parents, friends, religion, relations, country and universe." (Hugo had included "God" in the list, but Verdi probably knew he could not get that past the censors.) Reciprocally, Rigoletto expects that he will be everything to her — and she, with innocent deception, assures him that he will: "If I can keep you happy, that is all my joy, my life." The father wants to keep her so distant from his own world that he will not tell her anything about himself, not even his name. He wants to be her all, but he has no all to offer. Rigoletto's revulsion from himself is so great that he desires anonymity. He does not give his name to the "hit man" he will use, though that murderer repeats his own name unforgettably: "My name — Sparafucil … Sparafucil, Sparafucil."

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Juan Pons and Ekaterina Siurina, above, Rigoletto and Gilda at the Metropolitan Opera, 2006
© Johan Elbers 2013

Later, when Rigoletto gives the murderer his assignment, Sparafucile wants to know the names of his victim and his employer, but Rigoletto still withholds his name, saying only "Call him 'Crime' — and me 'Punishment.'" Since Gilda has not been allowed to know the name of any man, not even her father's, it is not surprising that, given one name at last, she repeats it with dizzily girlish rapture — "Gualtier Maldè, Gualtier Maldè" — though the name, appropriately in her world made artificially unknowing, is the false one the Duke gave her in his disguise. 

Like Lear, Rigoletto makes an idol of his daughter and expects to be idolized by her. In both cases, the strain of such monopolization of affection makes the daughter seem false to her father. Cordelia says that she will not exclude every other man from her affections, and he furiously rejects her. Gilda succumbs to the one sexual love offered in her isolation, and she sacrifices herself to it. In both cases, the father sees his folly too late. When Rigoletto cries over his dead daughter "Gilda! Gilda!" we can hear Lear carrying in the dead Cordelia and crying "Howl! Howl! Howl! Howl!" Both fathers are even deluded for a moment into thinking the girl will live. (Hugo spins this out too long, as a doctor is sent for while his heroine lingers in her dying.) The ironies become crushing when Rigoletto asks Gilda who killed her and she will not give the name 

Other resemblances flicker back and forth between Shakespeare's play and Verdi's opera. The storm of passion that wraps itself around all the principals at the end of Rigoletto resembles the great storm scene in which Lear goes mad. The bitter ironies of Lear are underscored by the Fool who is Lear's jester. Laughter is a searing thing in both works, but the Fool speaks to puncture folly, and the mad Lear jests while hardly knowing it. Rigoletto laughs to mock and wound in the opera's opening scene, but he enters with an anguished ghost of laughter  — "La rà, la rà, la rà" — when he returns to court racked with fear and anger. 

Between those scenes is a wonder of black humor, as Rigoletto and the assassin-for-hire, Sparafucile, do a slow dance of deadly indirection around each other. Solo cello and double bass, as if affecting nonchalance about the deadly business going on, bind together the men's hesitant probes and hints with a carefully meandering melody, calmly picking its way as through a minefield. Sparafucile is straightfacedly punctilious about assassination: he all but offers Rigoletto his business card. Rigoletto tries to affect indifference — when he asks for the killer's address, he does so "only in case." The furtive business deal leads later to the work's finest touch of the macabre. When Sparafucile's sister, Maddalena, tells him to kill the hunchback, in order to preserve the charming Duke who has just won her, Sparafucile is shocked: "Do you take me for a thief, or even a bandit? What client of mine was ever cheated?" He is a killer, but he keeps an honest ledger of his kills. And Rigoletto, in his one soliloquy, recognizes that he is a brother in death with Sparafucile. "We are mates (pari), I killing with my tongue, he with a knife."

Rigoletto is the most tightly plotted and intricately ironic opera Verdi ever wrote. He rightly told the soprano's husband that there was no room to put in a standard aria for her. Much of this derives from Hugo's clever plot, though Hugo was diffuse in pointing out his cleverness. Verdi cut to essentials. Then why did he give the one full aria-with-cabaletta ("Parmi veder le lagrime") to his lecherous Duke and make it such a convincing love song? Those who want a villainous ruler from Verdi are being simplistic. The opera, unlike the play, is not regicidal. 

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© GL Archive/Alamy 2013

The Duke must be desirable if so many women are to fall for him. Maddalena succumbs, just as Gilda has. Though the Duke throws a bag of coins to Gilda's duenna, he does not have to: she is clearly on his side from the outset. (Hugo has his king bargain back and forth with bigger bribes for the woman.)

Unless the Duke is charming, the play makes no sense. (The same is true of Mozart's Don Giovanni.) The Duke does not need the heavy-handed signaling of lust that Luciano Pavarotti gives him in Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's 1982 film version of the opera. He should not paw Maddalena. He just relaxes and lets her come to him. The part should be played by a tenorial flaneur like Dino Borgioli. 

A sentimental view of Rigoletto is that he is a sensitive man forced by physical deformity to violate his soul: that is the view Hugo expressed in his own defense of the play. But Verdi, instructing his librettist Piave, is harder-headed. He shows us that Rigoletto is more corrupting than corrupted at the court. He prods the Duke toward his sexual conquests and leads him to the prey. Rigoletto first suggests that the Duke kill his lover's husband, Ceprano. And he is responsible for the death of the father, Monterone, who curses the jester for the ruin of his daughter. Rigoletto and Sparafucile are, indeed, alike. 

Though the Duke seduces Gilda, Rigoletto has systematically incapacitated her for resistance, trying to armor her with ignorance, which is a disarming force. Because he starved her of normal human company, her baffled love takes the one channel given it. The channel seems foul to Rigoletto, but it is more life-giving than anything she has known in the arid landscape where he stranded her. She is true to this one love and sacrifices herself for it. The real tragedy of Rigoletto lies in what she sings at her death. In her earlier attempt to coax her mother's name from her father, she soothes him with a tune beginning "Lassù in ciel" — high there in heaven — they will be united with her mother. She begins her last song with the same words. But now she is thinking of the man for whom she is giving her life. It is the last twist of irony's knife in her father. 

Shakespeare was as little sentimental in the way he treated his king as Verdi was in handling his hunchback. Lear, who begins the play stultified by self-infatuation, has to be disciplined by pain into humanity. Rigoletto finally achieves the same humanity — but both men have a price to pay for this initiation into wisdom. The price paid by each is his daughter.

Though Verdi never wrote Il Re Lear, Shakespeare helped make Rigoletto as great as it is. (Vaughan Williams considered it his finest opera.) Perhaps he had unwittingly added another obstacle to his dream of doing a King Lear. How could Cordelia–Lear top Gilda–Rigoletto? spacer 

GARRY WILLS is Professor of History Emeritus at Northwestern University and author of Verdi's Shakespeare: Men of the Theater.


spacer "Open Letters" Verdi's friendship with his librettist Piave (Mary Jane Phillips-Matz, March 5, 1994)
spacer "The Verdian" Željko Lučić, Rigoletto in the Met's new staging (Scott Rose, October 2010)

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