Tragic Devotion: Verdi's 'Rigoletto'

It's easy to wonder if actual events in the lives of great composers are directly reflected in their music. Sometimes, people even argue about it. But in the case of personal tragedies early in Giuseppe Verdi's life, the case seems like a slam dunk.

Verdi wrote his first opera, Oberto while in his late twenties, for Milan's historic opera house, La Scala. The 1839 premiere was successful enough for the company to offer him a contract for three more dramas. It seemed Verdi was on his way to a solid career. Then disaster struck.        

Not long before, Verdi had endured the death of his young son. By the spring of 1840, he had also lost his second child, an infant daughter, and his wife. Later that year his next opera was a flop. Verdi's personal life and career were in tatters, and he considered giving up composing altogether.

Eventually, Verdi made a comeback with his third opera, the smash hit Nabucco. In it, he touched on a dramatic theme to which he would turn repeatedly throughout his long career. That theme is parental love, and in particular the loving yet complex relationship between a father and his daughter -- a relationship that, tragically, Verdi himself had never had the chance to fully enjoy.

The father-child relationship crops up in a number of Verdi's finest operas, including Aida, Simon Boccanegra and La Traviata. But the composer never portrayed it more poignantly, or more tragically, than in Rigoletto.

Verdi completed Rigoletto in 1851, basing the opera on a play by Victor Hugo called Le roi s'amuse. The composer once said it was "perhaps the greatest drama of modern times," and went on to describe its main character as "a creation worthy of Shakespeare."

That character, Triboulet in Hugo's play, became the title character in Verdi's opera.  He's a man whose harsh life is warmed only by the unconditional love of his daughter, a young woman eventually destroyed as an inadvertent result of Rigoletto's own anger and bitterness. 

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Verdi's Rigoletto in a truly brilliant production, released from the archives of La Scala in Milan, as part of the Verdi bicentennial celebration.  Leo Nucci gives an overwhelming performance in the title role, with soprano Andrea Rost as Gilda and tenor Ramón Vargas as the Duke, in a performance led by Riccardo Muti.