Learning to Love Opera: 'Rigoletto'

In the next scene, we are in Rigoletto's house, where Gilda dreamily recounts having met a handsome young man (the Duke) who says he is a poor student named Gualtier Maldé. For Gilda it is love at first sight and she repeats his "Caro Nome" ("dear name"). Again, the music says it all, along with the acting of Ileana Cotrubas:


I am showing you excerpts from different productions, most of which do not have subtitles. My choice here is to introduce you to great singers who also can express with words and gestures as great actors do. Probably the greatest Rigoletto was Tito Gobbi, whose acting was so good that he appeared in many Italian movies in addition to singing in opera. When the courtiers kidnap Gilda (thinking she is Rigoletto's mistress), he confronts them, calling them a vile race. Gobbi, back in 1945, makes you feel every aspect of his anguish. He is a jester, but also a father for whom Gilda is his entire family:


In fact, Gilda has probably been deflowered (or raped, depending on whether you think she was willing or not) by the Duke. Having made his conquest, he already is looking for another woman. He goes to a broken-down house at the edge of town where he sings "La Donna è Mobile" ("Woman is fickle") before seeking the services of Maddalena, a prostitute whose brother Sparafucile has been hired by Rigoletto to assassinate the Duke. Such a concept was an affront to censors in Venice, so the story is made slightly more oblique. Though the video is poor, listen to the great Alfredo Kraus sing an aria you already know:


Verdi then created the famous Act Three Quartet ("Bella Figlia dell'Amore"):


Here Luciano Pavarotti (the Duke) seduces Isola Jones (Maddalena), while Rigoletto (Leo Nucci) tries to convince Gilda (Joan Sutherland) that the man she claims to love is no good. He has decided to have the Duke killed, although Maddalena convinces her brother (the assassin) to deliver a sack to Rigoletto containing the body of someone else.

Rigoletto sends Gilda away, but the lovestruck girl returns clandestinely to vainly warn the Duke he is in danger. When Sparafucile hands Rigoletto the sack, the jester exults at having had revenge against the man who seduced his daughter. He opens the sack and finds, instead, the dying Gilda. You do not need to see a video of this. Rather, use your imagination to picture the scene. With the voices (and vocal acting) of Tito Gobbi and Maria Callas, it will be abundantly clear:


This is perhaps your first contact with this masterpiece, or with opera. But it is only a beginning. Each singer in the roles of Rigoletto, Gilda and the Duke brings different interpretations to these iconic characters. You can see the opera again and again, with different singers in different stagings, and with each hearing you will not merely hear music you know, but experience it anew, and in deeper ways. Once you give yourself to this approach to opera, you will form a lifelong relationship with a ever-expanding group of masterpieces that will give more meaning to your life. Trust me, I know.


No matter where you live or travel, you will find it easy to see a performance of Rigoletto. This opera will be performed this season at the Metropolitan Opera (New York; September 29; October 2, 5, 8, 14; January 11, 15, 18, 22, 27; April 26, 30; May 3, 2011 ); Opera Australia (Sydney; September 18, 23, 28; October 2, 6, 9, 12, 16, 18, 21, 23, 27, 29; November 1, 4, 2010); Teatro Municipal (Santiago, Chile; September 20, 23, 24, 25, 27, 28, 30; October 1, 3, 2010); The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (London; October 11, 14, 16, 19, 21, 23, 27, 30 mat; November 2, 4, 6, 2010); The Opera de Montréal (September 25, 29; October 2, 4, 7, 9, 2010); Virginia Opera (Norfolk Oct 2, 6, 8, 10 mat; Fairfax Oct 15, 17 mat; Richmond Oct 22, 24 mat 2010); Los Angeles Opera (November 27; December 2, 5 mat, 8, 11, 15, 18, 2010); Opéra de Monte Carlo (March 25, 27 mat, 30, 31; April 1, 2, 3 mat 2011); Dallas Opera (March 25, 27m, 30; April 2, 7, 10m, 2011); Scottish Opera (Glasgow May 11, 15, 18, 21; Edinburgh May 24, 26, 28; Aberdeen June 2, 4; Inverness June 9, 11, 2010); Cincinnati Opera (June 16, 18, 2011).

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Fred Plotkin is the author of Opera 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Opera (Hyperion), the standard text in America for learning opera, and is one of the world's foremost experts on this art form. More

Fred Plotkin is the author of Opera 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Opera (Hyperion), the standard text in America for learning opera, and is one of the world's foremost experts on this art form. He teaches opera everywhere, including the Metropolitan Opera Guild, the Smithsonian, and NYU. He is equally renowned for his profound knowledge of the food and wine of Italy, and is the author of several classic books, including the recently updated Italy for the Gourmet Traveler (Kyle Books).

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