The fool in Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s production of »Rigoletto« is clad in poisonous green, and equally toxic is his mockery of the gaggle of courtiers around the Duke of Mantua. But emotionally the fool is a mess, constantly worried about his daughter Gilda, whom he jealously shields from the clutches of the Duke, an infamous rake. When Gilda nevertheless falls victim to the Duke, Rigoletto swears bloody vengeance. But the plan backfires … The hugely successful premiere of »Rigoletto« took place at the Teatro La Fenice in 1851. Giuseppe Verdi created a score which he himself described as »revolutionary« in its ground-breaking musical and dramatic intensity. The end result is a deeply shocking work, and perhaps the best opera by the great Italian.
Picture 1, From a masqued festival to a dance of death
A masqued festival in the palace of the Duke of Mantua. The revelry is in full swing. Despite all the distractions, there is a young girl whom the host cannot get out of his head. Off to one side of the festival, he explains to the courtier Borsa that he must finally have this unknown girl he has seen every Sunday in church for the last three months, and who he knows has a male visitor in the evening. Borsa diverts the Duke's attention to Countess Ceprano. He has never seduced her before. She is reason enough for the Duke to let off steam and at the same time to put down her husband. Rigoletto humiliates Count Ceprano in public. The festival continues. The nobleman Marullo brings spectacular news: Rigoletto has a secret lover. Everyone falls about in mirth. Rigoletto chooses Count Ceprano as the target of his deadly ridicule, and overshoots the mark. The Duke gives him a warning. Count Ceprano incites the courtiers to extract revenge upon Rigoletto. But for now, the party goes on. The Count of Monterone bursts into the middle of the scene. He accuses the Duke of dishonouring his daughter and curses him and Rigoletto, his unscrupulous jester. The atmosphere turns for the worse: the masquerade is over. Rigoletto is overcome by fear for his life.
Picture 2, The fateful day – Paradise infiltrated
On the way home, Rigoletto still cannot get the memory of Monterone’s curse out of his mind. A man follows him and addresses him: he is the assassin Sparafucile, who offers his services. He can overcome any rival by means of murder. His sister Maddalena helps him carry out his contracts neatly. At first, Rigoletto has no use for Sparafucile. He reflects on the one thing they have in common: killing. He kills with words, Sparafucile with a sword. Rigoletto suffers from his double life; he is only happy with his daughter, Gilda. He goes home to Gilda, whom he is hiding from the world. The happiness of the reunion between father and daughter is dampened by Gilda’s questions about his name and her origins. Rigoletto keeps both a secret, telling her that the main thing is his love for her. At the same time, Giovanna, Gilda’s governess, slips the Duke, disguised as a student, into Gilda’s room. Rigoletto has to return to the ducal palace, impressing it upon the two women that they may only leave the house to go to church. Left alone, Gilda is plagued with guilty feelings that she has kept her meetings with the unknown young man from the church, and her love for him, secret from her father. Her confession of love drives the Duke out of his hiding-place. He returns the feelings and tells Gilda a false name: Gualtier Maldé. A noise comes between them: Gilda is afraid her father is returning home and sends away the man she loves. But the first to arrive are Marullo, Borsa, Ceprano and other courtiers, planning to abduct Gilda. When Rigoletto, driven by disquiet, does indeed come back, they involve him in the coup. They claim to be abducting the neighbouring Countess Ceprano for the Duke. Rigoletto goes along with them. He realises too late that it is Gilda they are abducting: his paradise is destroyed.
Picture 3, Trapped in himself
The Duke is wild with fury and pain. Gilda has been snatched away from him. He swears his revenge on those who have dared abduct her and do her harm. The courtiers disturb his isolation in their excitement at having got back at Rigoletto by stealing his sweetheart from him. They have brought their fresh catch to the palace. The Duke falls into his usual hunting fever and rushes to her.Rigoletto searches the palace for traces of Gilda. Behind his façade of ridicule and irony, his soul weeps with fear and despair. It is enough to satisfy the abductors. When they refuse the page entry to the Duke’s room, Rigoletto realises the truth. Curses thrown at the courtiers get him nowhere. He gives way to begging them to let him free Gilda. His misery falls upon deaf ears.Gilda tells Rigoletto everything she has kept secret from him. She stands by her love of the Duke. The courtiers retreat.Rigoletto leads Gilda out of the palace. His way is barred by the tormented Monterone. Rigoletto promises to extract his revenge for him. Gilda pleads for the Duke’s life, but her father does not listen.
Picture 4, Fall and apotheosis
On the bank of the river. Rigoletto has commissioned Sparafucile to murder the Duke without revealing the latter’s identity. To bring Gilda’s love for the Duke to an end, he forces her to watch the Duke’s latest amorous adventure. She is forced to watch as the Duke, this time dressed as a soldier, courts Maddalena using the same words. She does not recognise the routine. Rigoletto tells Gilda, disguised in a man’s clothing, to flee immediately to Verona. He agrees upon the price for the murder with Sparafucile. The first half is to be paid straight away, the second upon completion of the contract. He plans to fetch the body at about midnight and throw it into the river. Gilda goes against her father’s orders and returns. She hears Maddalena begging her brother to spare the life of the young man by killing a stranger in his place. This will only work if someone finds his way into her house before midnight. Gilda decides that she will be the stranger. Rigoletto collects the sack with the body. At the peak of his triumph over the Duke, he hears the latter singing a canzone. He opens the sack and finds the dying Gilda. Nature, which has built up into a storm, collapses into darkness and quiet. Faced with death, father and daughter are reconciled. Rigoletto is left behind alone.