Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto has been a staple in the standard operatic repertoire since its 1851 premiere, but its road to the stage was anything but smooth. Before you head to LA Opera’s production of Rigoletto on May 12, here are five things you may not already know about Verdi’s artistic process in writing this tour de force!
Verdi’s Uphill Battle
Verdi believed that Victor Hugo’s controversial play The King Takes His Pleasure introduced “a character that is one of the greatest creations that the theater can boast of, in any country and in all history.” Turning the play into the opera Rigoletto wasn’t an easy process, however; with its setting in a corrupt royal court, numerous adjustments had to be made to satisfy the Venetian censors. Mary Jane Phillips-Matz, author of the definitive Verdi: A Biography, described the incessant battles that Verdi and his librettist Francesco Maria Piave faced. After reading the first draft, the censors expressed their “profound regret that the poet Piave and the celebrated maestro Verdi should not have chosen a worthier vehicle to display their talents,” citing the libretto’s “revolting immorality and obscene triviality.”
Francesco Maria Piave
Piave was Verdi’s librettist for ten operas between 1844 and 1862, including The Two Foscari, Macbeth, La Traviata and Simon Boccanegra. For Rigoletto, Verdi entrusted Piave with negotiating with the Venetian censors, and reprimanded his friend severely when the initial draft was rejected. Piave’s career came to an abrupt end in 1867, when he suffered a stroke that left him an invalid for his remaining years. Verdi generously supported Piave and his family during this time and later paid for his funeral in 1876.
The Primo Verdi Baritone
Rigoletto is considered by many to be the greatest role ever written for baritone. Verdi’s pick for the part was Felice Varesi, who had been the composer’s first Macbeth in 1847. Known as a highly reliable performer, Varesi was uncomfortable in his costume and suffered a panic attack before his first entrance on opening night, paralyzed by anxiety about how the audience would react to the first sight of the hunchbacked jester he portrayed. Verdi had to physically push Varesi onto the stage, which caused him to trip and stumble. The audience erupted in applause, assuming that it was an intended dramatic effect. Two years later, Varesi created the role of Germont in Verdi’s La Traviata.
It’s a Hit
The opera’s 1851 premiere at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice was an enormous box office success—even though the first published reviews reflected confusion about the unusual subject matter. The opera was produced in six other Italian cities that year, and six more, plus Vienna, the following year. “Everyone cried out at the idea of putting a hunchback on the stage; well, there you are,” Verdi wrote in 1852. “I was very happy to write Rigoletto…and it is my best opera.”
LAO’s First Rigoletto
The LA Opera premiere of Rigoletto arrived in 1993, starring the great Justino Díaz in his very first performance of the title role. Variety praised him for capturing “the tone and substance of the role. His baritone is a rich, dimensional instrument.” The dashing Puerto Rican singer—who famously created the role of Antony in Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra at the 1966 inauguration of the new Metropolitan Opera House—had previously starred in LAO productions of Macbeth, Otello, Tosca and The Girl of the Golden West, and would return for El Gato Montés and a revival of Tosca.
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