I somehow attended the Utah Opera’s 2012 production of Rigoletto. It reminded me of the New York Metropolitan Opera where I saw many performances as a boy. Back then my favorite parts were prying six dollars out of my father for a soda and snack at intermission and pitching peanuts into the bassoonist’s bosoms in the orchestra pit.
Opera is rarely appreciated and never understood. It can be fun, though, like when Rigoletto’s Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi (“Joe Green” as he’s known here) said, “I conceived Rigoletto without arias, without finales, as an unbroken chain of duets, because I was convinced that that was most suitable.” Rarely do you see an entertaining use of the word that twice in one sentence.
At any given night at the opera, you’ll see a dramatic text set to music, which is performed by musicians (harpos), sung by gigolos (chicos), acted by jesters (grouchos), housed in an ornate building, attended by patrons (drunk), and which attempts to highlight the foibles of the times, all while contriving the plot so that a beautiful soprano (fat) has a few chances to belt out some popular show tunes.
Rigoletto is based on a play by Victor Hugo called Le Roi S’Amuse (King Roy Amuses Himself). (Seriously?) You can read the libretto and not understand it for yourself. However, here is a brief synopsis of the opera, which may be skipped entirely:
Act 1 The old Duke of Mantua flirts with a beautiful married Countess. Rigoletto, the hunch-backed court jester, mocks the Count. Then the Countess’ father denounces the Duke for seducing his daughter. The father curses Rigoletto and the Duke, which scares the jest out of Rigoletto.
Later that evening the Duke, disguised as Madame Butterfly, sneaks up on Rigoletto’s presumed mistress, Gilda (who is really Rigoletto’s daughter), and declares his love for her, saying, “E il sol dell’anima” (“Let’s go out for Chinese, baby.”). Gilda begs him to leave, which he does, but afterwards she wishes they had gotten takeout eggrolls and a movie.
Even later that evening, the Duke’s henchmen arrive at Rigoletto’s house to kidnap Gilda, thinking that’s what the Duke wanted. But the henchmen, needing Rigoletto’s help to gain entry (to the house, not to Gilda), convince Rigoletto that he’s helping the Duke kidnap the Countess (remember her?) who lives nearby. The henchmen tell Rigoletto that he must wear a blindfold for a more realistic kidnapping. (Seriously?) They capture Gilda, and when Rigoletto hears her voice he rips off the blindfold and famously cries, “Ah! La maledizione!” (“Surely, you jest!”). Everyone laughs at the joke, including the audience, who saw the translation on the teleprompter above the stage.
Act 2 Harpo cuts up on the piano in a brief comic recitative (an Italian word meaning “Thank God for a break”).
Act 3 The Duke, now disguised as a soldier, having released Gilda from captivity because he learned she is the jester’s daughter, pursues yet another woman at a nearby inn, The Horndog. The Duke sings a tune, “La donna e mobile”* (later made popular by the Tom and Jerry cartoon) in which he says women are “mobile”, a common slur at the time.
Meanwhile, Rigoletto has been plotting to kill the Duke, so he hires an assassin who is at the same inn. But Gilda, now disguised as the orchestra conductor, stumbles upon the plot, and the assassin inadvertently stabs Gilda instead of the Duke. Rigoletto, in perfect comedic timing, returns to the scene and finds the dying Gilda and realizes the curse of Act 1 has been fulfilled! This is good because with the death of the conductor the music has suddenly come to a screeching halt anyway.
The curtain falls, and the audience realizes the main point of the entire opera: “Oh! Guisseppe Verdi really does mean Joe Green. LOL!”
We have seen that opera combines many theatrical things like acting, scenery, props, costumes, magic flutes, jesters, barbers of seville, marriages of figaro, fidelios, infidelios, comedy, death, crescendos, pianissimos, cruelty, violence, vengeance, abduction, rape, coughing, throat lozenges, baritones and ringtones. And all that’s just in the audience.
When the Utah Opera performance of Rigoletto was over, I was satisfied. I had relived my enjoyment of a favorite opera, and I was able to misunderstand the entire story translated into English this time. Best of all, I had sunk two peanuts in the Bassoonist.
*Woman is flighty…Who on that bosom does not drink love (or feast on peanuts**)!