There’s a reason opera is used to sell pasta sauce and score slow-motion sequences in Hollywood. The kernel of that is Verdi’s Rigoletto.
Giuseppe Verdi’s 1851 opera Rigoletto is a dramatic masterpiece, always being performed somewhere in the world. It has all the right soap-opera ingredients, and the music is nothing short of brilliant. Here’s the plot in a nutshell:
The Duke of Mantua is a bit of a lad. He’s had more affairs than hot breakfasts and no woman is safe from his carnal desires. His jester, the hunchbacked Rigoletto, helps procure women for the Duke’s pleasure. It’s a job that keeps him pretty busy.
As you can imagine, the men of the court aren’t at all happy with the situation – their wives, mistresses, sisters and daughters are all susceptible to the Duke’s considerable charms. Rigoletto laughs at them; well, it’s more like jeering. Not a good way to make friends and influence people as things turn out.
One nobleman, incensed that his daughter was dishonoured by the Duke, rails at Rigoletto, cursing him for his lack of morals. This totally freaks Rigoletto out. (Curses are always taken very seriously in opera plots.)
But Rigoletto has a secret. Each night, he returns home, where he’s hidden his daughter Gilda away (it’s pronounced Jill-da). He may be a pimp, but he’s not going to let his daughter get into the Duke’s lascivious clutches, and warns her to stay hidden. Gilda however, already loves the Duke, who visits her in the guise of a poor student.
Meanwhile, the courtiers want revenge on Rigoletto, so they tell him they’re abducting a countess and trick him into helping them. Yet it’s really Gilda they’re kidnapping, in the belief that she is Rigoletto’s mistress. When he realises what’s actually happened, he’s beside himself with misery, recalling the curse.
The courtiers tell the Duke they have captured Rigoletto’s mistress and that she’s in his bedroom. He’s delighted when he discovers it’s Gilda. Rigoletto arrives frantic with worry and the courtiers mock him. Ha, they think, the shoe’s on the other foot!
Gilda emerges from the bedroom and it’s clear from her state of déshabille that she’s enjoyed a dalliance with the Duke. Well, Rigoletto is furious and swears revenge. There’s lots of revenge in this opera.
Rigoletto hires Sparafucile, the local assassin (every town has one), to kill the Duke, who has been lured to Sparafucile’s house with promises of a fling with Maddalena, the assassin’s sister. Rigoletto brings Gilda there to watch what happens so she’ll see that the Duke is a bad egg, especially when he sings our chosen aria, La donna è mobile (Woman is Fickle).
Considering this guy is a complete Lothario, it’s pretty paradoxical that he’s calling women fickle. The aria reinforces the Duke’s utter conceitedness. The melody is catchy and there can’t be too many people who haven’t heard it. Even people who know nothing about opera can hum along to this tune.
Here’s Pavarotti telling us that a woman is always untrustworthy (oh, the irony):
Gilda, however, doesn’t care. She’s smitten, poor lamb.
She’s sent home to change into men’s clothes so she can travel safely out of town. By now, Maddalena rather fancies the Duke too, so she begs her brother not to kill him. He agrees on condition someone else be found to kill so he can collect his money for the job. Gilda has secretly returned and heard this, so she decides to save the Duke, knocks on the door and is stabbed and shoved into a sack.
Rigoletto arrives at the appointed hour to collect the body of the Duke and he’s mightily pleased with himself. That is, until he hears La donna è Mobile being sung once again. Uh oh! He opens the sack and to his horror finds Gilda. As she breathes her last breath, she asks her father for forgiveness and tells him that she truly loved the Duke.
The curse is fulfilled. Rigoletto weeps in despair.
You can check out the words, here.