Overture Opera Guide: Verdi’s Rigoletto

COMPOSERS: Rigoletto
LABELS: Overture
ALBUM TITLE: Overture Opera Guide: Verdi’s Rigoletto
PERFORMER: Ed. Gary Kahn
CATALOGUE NO: ISBN: 978-1-84749-626-3


Some operas generate more thought and controversy than others. Rigoletto, the first of Verdi’s most celebrated central trio of operas, is one of those works that, for all its bizarre and even ludicrous features, hardly needs much in the way of introduction and commentary. Still, the most valuable feature of this latest volume in the Overture Opera series is the printing of the full Italian text, with the excellent translation by William Weaver on facing pages. Now that most CD opera sets come either without the work’s text, or only in microscopic print, this makes for comfortable listening. Valuable, too, is the immense list of recordings of Rigoletto, 20 on CD and 14 on DVD, and that is only the ‘official’ recordings of this immensely popular work, described by Isaiah Berlin as the most enjoyable of all operas.

For any listener who is interested in the work’s genesis, its relation to Victor Hugo’s play, its reception and subsequent performance history, this volume is admirable both in its authoritativeness and its clarity. Verdi as usual was a severe taskmaster with his librettist, the hapless Piave. Jonathan Keates’s account makes absorbing reading, showing how, at the composer’s insistence, Hugo’s drama was largely adhered to, but changed in crucial respects to increase its pathos and the sweep of its action.

One might be surprised that Verdi was happy with a drama in which so many grotesquely improbable incidents are piled on one another, but that was the kind of thing, as we see from his other operas, that he adored and that sparked his creativity. Roger Parker, doyen of 19th-century Italian operatic scholarship, is just as helpful and fascinating on Rigoletto’s musical structure, and George Hall gives a masterly account of its performance history, right up to the curious ‘live’ performance on TV from Mantua a few years ago, the Munich production where the cast consisted of various species of primate, and the Berlusconi production in Brisbane. Clearly the old warhorse has plenty of life in it yet.


Michael Tanner