My first time seeing this. I wasn't really expecting to like it, because the plot is so weird, even by opera plot standards, and the opera is filled with thoroughly unpleasant characters. But it really, really, works. I think I may have found a new favorite opera (move over Wagner).

Rigoletto is a cripple, who works as a jester for the Duke of Mantua. (The script calls for him to be a crippled hunch-back, but in this production he is merely crippled, and even so gets around without a cane. Good actor though.) The Duke is perhaps the most unpleasant character: a rake, a womanizer, a seducer. His head appears to be totally empty save for thoughts of the next seduction. He has accumulated around him a court of men of similar substance, to cheer him on and to party with. (Aristocrats in operas are frequently very unpleasant people; I'm not sure whether this is because of or despite of the fact that composers frequently depended on their patronage. I'm happy to note that I'm not alone in my opinion of the Duke - Verdi had a hard time getting the civic authorities to approve performing this opera for exactly that reason. But then Verdi was a well-known trouble maker anyway - he was an artistic mascot of the Italian unification movement, which finally succeeded a few years later.)

So the opera opens with a party at court, which is interrupted by an angry father, threatening to do violence on the Duke for seducing his daughter. The Duke calls the cops. Rigoletto, trying to preserve the spirit of the party, makes some mocking comments. (The English translations were neither particularly amusing or hurtful, but I suppose they might be real zingers in Italian.) The old man was quite upset, and as he was being dragged away to incarceration, he pronounced a curse, on both the Duke and on Rigoletto his servant.

The superstitious Rigoletto is quite upset by the curse. He says he was only doing his job. "The Duke says 'Make me laugh', and when I mock, he laughs." (I suspect that if Verdi had known about the Nueremburg Trials he would have thrown in a subtle reference.) He suspects that a father's curse would involve something terrible happening to his beautiful daughter Gilda. So he hastens home to redouble security, making sure she admits no one, and never goes out except to Church (where, it turns out, she has been exchanging sweet glances with the Duke, not knowing who he is). (This protectiveness now seems like a very old-fashioned form of parenting. The modern style is more to admit a little evil every day, in hopes that the child will be inoculated against the Big One when it comes along.) Gilda, incidentally, is a marvelous soprano, with a secure, even tone over her range, and a good enough looker that the remarks about Rigoletto's beautiful daughter are entirely matter of course -- a remarkably happy choice of casting. Even while Rigoletto is there tightening security, the Duke is slipping in the terrace door, to make out with his daughter.

Meanwhile, back at the court, the "gentlemen courtiers", having detected a comely female in Rigoletto's house, decide the thing to do is kidnap her and bring her back to the palace. (They assume she is Rigoletto's mistress, rather than his daughter. The implication seems to be that they would not do such a thing to an innocent young girl, but that is not apparent on the face of it to me. The ethical niceties in this opera often pass over my head.) They snatch her out from under her father's nose, put her in a bag, and deposit her in the Duke's private apartment. The Duke is delighted by this maneuver, and, as it happens, so is Gilda. But Rigoletto is beside himself, and bemoans the working of the curse.

Rigoletto's despair and anger over the seduction of his daughter fester in the month between Act II and Act III, and he is finally driven to visit his friendly neighborhood assassin to put out a contract on the Duke. He takes Gilda along, for safe keeping. When they arrive at the assassin's house, and peek in through a crack in the door, who should be there but the Duke himself. He is making out with the assassin's sister Madalena (who is also a professional asset). At this point the Duke plunges into his theme aria, the famous "Donna e mobile". I shall not think the same of this song again. I had always regarded it as a mere pleasantry about the fickleness of women, of about the same content and import as "Cosi fan tutti." But to hear it on the lips of this evil man removes the pleasantness, and emphasizes the hypocritical sexism of this shameless roue.

Gilda observes the action between the Duke and Madalena, and acknowledges the kind of man he is, but still pleads with her father to spare his life. He doesn't listen, but plops down his down payment posthaste, since the mechanical arrangements for the assassination are so propitious, with the Duke already on the premises. In order to protect Gilda from any consequences that might arise, he dresses her in boy's clothing, and instructs her to skip town until things blow over. He then departs himself, promising to return later that night to take delivery of the Duke in a body bag.

Madalena is rather fond of the Duke herself, and pleads with her brother not to do him in. He points out that a dead Duke is worth 20 scudi, since he would not only not receive the 10 scudi final payment, he would have to return the 10 scudi Rigoletto has already given him. The opportunity for income is not to be foregone. She suggests that he can have the 20 scudi more easily, merely by stabbing Rigoletto when he shows up with the 10 scudi final payment in hand. He is outraged - "What, and betray a client? Honor forbids." (As I said, the ethical niceties here tend to escape me.) But she continues to nag, and he finally agrees, that if fortune should by chance bring someone to their front door in the next half hour, he will dispatch that unfortunate individual and but him in the bag intended for the Duke, and after Rigoletto takes the bag to the river, they would decamp.

But Gilda has disobeyed her father, and returned, in man's clothing, and is listening at the same crack. She declares that she knows full well what sort of man the Duke is, but loves him anyway, and will not see him killed for her sake. Mustering her resolve, she knocks at the door.

Rigoletto returns and takes delivery of the body bag, and happily sets off for the river. But he is stunned to hear a snatch of "Donna e mobile" from within the house. With trepidation he opens he body bag and recognizes his daughter. She is still alive, and tells him that she, knowing full well what she was doing, and knowing full well what sort of man he was, had given up her life for the Duke, because she loved him anyway. She then expires. The opera ends with her dead in her father's arms.

So of all the characters in the opera, Gilda, the one dead, is the only unqualified good guy. The rest range from odd (the assassin and Madalena) to flawed (Rigoletto) to despicable (the Duke and courtiers). And the bad guys end up still in business, unaffected by what has transpired, while Gilda is dead and Rigoletto is bereft. Here is real tragedy, beyond "Butterfly", beyond "Gotterdaemerung". Those merely end with the protagonists dead. Rigoletto lives, but with the knowledge that his own actions have led directly to the death of all that he loved, try as he might to blame it on the operation of the old man's curse. The final moment of the opera is utterly, irredeemably, completely horrible. I love it.

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