There was one very interesting point in the contract for a new opera concluded in April 1850 between the Board of Venice’s Teatro La Fenice and maestro Giuseppe Verdi.
Or to be more precise, in essence, that point was missing. The matter in question concerned the plot, which the composer was to select basically of his own free will. The strange logic of the Board is, in fact, not so very hard to understand. Verdi’s name was all but a sure-fi re guarantee of success and good box-office takings were assured.
While looking for a plot for his latest opera, Verdi settled for a drama by Victor Hugo: Le Roi s’amuse. The composer was at the height of his powers. He was enchanted with the atypical and ambiguous images of the protagonists, though the most important thing was their passions – the driving force of the plot. But fortune was not to shine on Verdi. At the first production of Hugo’s play in 1832 the Parisians all but arranged an antimonarchist picket, following which the play was banned. That comes as no surprise as at the core of the drama lay an incredibly unflatteringly drawn image of the King Francis I. The choice of such a subject as the basis of a libretto was not approved by the censor: the martial ruler of Venice issued a categorical ban.
Verdi despaired. There was no time to write another opera. This story, however, was to see yet another – even more unexpected – turn of events. Among the censors there was one influential player in the Chief of Police, a certain Carlo Martello. With the best of motives Martello suggested rewriting the libretto, more specifi cally changing the names of the characters, leaving out the monarch’s depraved features and dropping the jester’s hunched back as well as other more or less signifi can’t “details”.
Verdi’s reaction is well-documented. How else could it have been with a composer in relation to a policeman “clamouring” to be a co-author? The theatre, however, jumped at the lifeline. After four days of tense debate, Verdi at last agreed to the compromise. The composer retained the features of the characters, but gave them different names, changed the era and the location and made several other amendments to the dramaturgy. In an incredibly swift period Verdi completed his opera. All the troubles connected with being granted permission to stage the work were in the past.
The most important thing the composer managed to achieve was to create mysterious images and such characters of the protagonists who would not be viewed unambiguously. The dissolute and unprincipled Duke was to be a man who loves life and amusements. His melodies are refined, easygoing and – undoubtedly – pleasant. The Duke’s main enemy is his ennui, which is why he has so much need of the jester.
Rigoletto... A freak instead of a hero – a theme Hugo adored. One year before the play Le Roi s’amuse Hugo had created the hunchbacked Quasimodo. Here the jester was Triboulet, at the end of his life, “a man who laughs”. The hunchback – the opera’s protagonist – was an even bolder step. In one act, Verdi presents two totally contrasting views of this character: a villain angry with everyone surrounding him and a suffering, deeply loving father.
Much later Verdi declared Rigoletto a paradox in his creative career: the obligatory compromises should have affected the opera in a negative way, but what actually happened was that an unusual drama emerged, having a much brighter future than its protagonist.