Pros: Great music; three great leads (Wixell, Gruberova, Pavarotti); excellent secondary cast; visually splendid; complex characters
Cons: Some viewers dislike the post-dubbing of the music
For the sixth in my on-going series of reviews of cinematic adaptations of operas, I've selected Verdi's Rigoletto, as directed by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle in 1982, and featuring a vocally superlative cast.
Historical Background: Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) was born in Le Roncole, Italy, where the people were dirt poor but where singing was an everyday part of life. When Verdi reached school age, he was sent to the nearby village of Busseto, where he studied and worked as an assistant for a relatively prosperous grocer, Antonio Barezzi. Barezzi had a love for music and, recognizing the young Giuseppe's musical gifts, arranged for his early musical training through piano lessons. Soon, the young Verdi was playing piano duets with Barezzi's daughter, Margherita, whom he later married in 1835. When Verdi was rejected by The Imperial Conservatory in Milan, Barezzi even paid for private study there. Afterwards, Verdi returned to Busseto to become the church organist.
In 1838, Verdi and his young wife moved to Milan, where Verdi's first opera, Oberto, was produced at La Scala in 1839, with some success. Soon, however, Margherita and their two children all fell ill and died. In the span of just two years, all three of Verdi's most cherished ones had been stripped from his life. During this period of oppressive loneliness, he was obliged to continue work on a comic opera, Un Giorno di Regno. For obvious reasons, it proved to be not very comic and was badly received when produced in 1840. Verdi was so depressed that he determined to abandon composing. Two years later, however, the Scala impresario, Bartolomeo Merelli, rekindled Verdi's energies by presenting him with an irresistible libretto. The result was Nabucco (1842). Verdi later said that his artistic career really began in 1842 with Nabucco. Furthermore, the prima donna for Nabucco, Giuseppina Strepponi, became his dear friend and, later, his second wife.
During the rest of the 1840's, Verdi gained notoriety throughout Italy with such works as I Lombardi and Attila, though these operas were still immature by the standards of Verdi's later masterpieces. Verdi reached a new pinnacle of musical expression beginning with Luisa Miller (1849) and, especially, with the three great masterpieces of the early fifties, Rigoletto (1851), Il Trovatore (1853), and La Traviata (1853). Rigoletto opened at Fenice on March 11th, 1851 and was immediately popular with the public, though sometimes poorly comprehended by opera critics.
The Story: Rigoletto is normally presented in four acts. For the current cinematic presentation, the first two acts were compressed into one, which the companion booklet refers to as Scenes 1 and 2 of Act I. I'll use the designations as they occur in the film.
Act I, Scene 1 opens upon the Ducal court at Mantua, in Italy, where the courtiers are engaged in licentious festivities. The Duke of Mantova (Luciano Pavarottie), a suave and handsome libertine of the worst kind, boasts of his conquests and propounds on his cynical theories of love, in the aria Questa o quella. The Duke confides to Borsa (Rémy Corazza), one of the courtiers, that he is determined to seduce the pretty girl whom he has seen only at church. In the meantime, he'll settle for the nearby Contessa di Ceprano (Kathleen Kuhlmann), who he proceeds to entice, first dancing a sprightly minuet with her, right in front of her hapless husband, Count Ceprano (Roland Bracht). The Duke turns to his hunchbacked jester, Rigoletto (Ingvar Wixell), asking him to devise a plan to remove the Count from the scene, one way or another. The malicious Rigoletto, who has worked for the Duke for decades, takes pitiless delight in the ribald cuckoldries that his master inflicts, and enjoys taunting the various courtiers. He is thus despised by all alike. One of the courtiers, Marullo (played by Louis Otey but sung by Bernd Weikl), informs the others that he has discovered that Rigoletto is apparently secretly keeping a mistress. Ceprano, overhearing Rigoletto's ideas for helping the Duke with the seduction of the Contessa, urges the other courtiers to join him later that night in a plan to take revenge on the cruel jester. The plotting is interrupted by the sudden arrival of Count Monterone (also played by Wixell), who comes to protest the recent seduction and deflowering of his daughter by the Duke. The Duke orders Monterone arrested and Rigoletto leads the court in mocking the poor man's grief. Monterone swears vengeance and places a curse on the jester.
Act I, Scene 2 reveals a dark and secluded street where Rigoletto resides, not far from Ceprano's dwelling. There, Rigoletto encounters the assassin, Sparafucile (Ferruccio Furlanetto), who offers his services should Rigoletto ever be in need of ridding himself of a rival. After Sparafucile departs, Rigoletto, still brooding over Monterone's curse, bemoans (in the aria Pari siamo) the fate that requires that he serve, with his acid tongue, such a despicable rouge as the Duke. Arriving home, Rigoletto embraces his daughter, Gilda (Edia Gruberova), in the courtyard. Fearful for his daughter's safety, Rigoletto has done all within his power to protect her from the Duke and the courtiers, by secluding her in their home.. He also hopes to shield her from any knowledge of his own sordid life. The innocent girl has only been allowed out of the home to attend church and it is she that the Duke has spied there and targeted as his next conquest. Rigoletto summons Giovanna (Fedora Barbieri), Gilda's custodian, to impress upon her the importance of keeping Gilda completely isolated, under utmost vigilance.
When a noise draws Rigoletto out into the street, the Duke suddenly appears behind a shrubbery and is stupefied to discover that the object of his lust is the daughter of his own jester. He overhears Gilda confiding to Giovanna that she regrets not telling her father about the young admirer she had seen at church. She admits to being attracted to the handsome young man. The Duke, recognizing an opportunity when it's presented, reveals himself and ardently presses his entreaties, misrepresenting himself as a love-struck, penniless student. The naively romantic Gilda is easily taken in, declaring her undying love. When Rigoletto is heard returning, the Duke beats a hasty retreat and Gilda sings an impassioned aria (Caro nome), in dreamy exultation of her newfound love.
Meanwhile, the courtiers, led by Marullo, Borsa, and Ceprano, wearing masks, have gathered in the darkness of the night in the street outside Rigoletto's residence, intent on abducting Gilda, who they still believe to be Rigoletto's mistress. When they unexpectedly encounter Rigoletto, they deceive him into believing that they have come to abduct Ceprano's wife for the Duke and enlist his aid in their plot. Rigoletto is given a mask, which is then secured with a blindfold that renders him both blind and deaf to the proceedings. Rigoletto is assigned the task of holding the ladder, which is placed under the balcony of his own home. It is Gilda who is abducted, with Rigoletto as an unwitting accomplice. By the time Rigoletto removes his blindfold, he is alone, with just Gilda's scarf, which she had dropped while begin spirited away.
Act II is set in the ducal palace. The Duke returns to the palace lamenting his discovery (Parmi veder le lagrime) that the object of his desire has been abducted, unaware that she has been brought to his own palace. When the courtiers appear and recount their coup of the previous night, the delighted Duke scurries off immediately to conquer his prey. Rigoletto now enters, hoping to discover his daughter's whereabouts. He tries pathetically to feign nonchalance (Povero Rigoletto), uncertain of what the smirking courtiers already know. Soon, however, it becomes apparent that the Duke is already squirreled away with his daughter, culminating her dishonor. The vengeful courtiers are indifference to Rigoletto's anguish, even after learning that Gilda is his daughter rather than his mistress. Too late, Rigoletto is reunited with his daughter, but her state of dishevelment and distress make it all too apparent that the Duke has had his way with her. The courtiers retreat and Rigoletto and Gilda are left to share a heartrending duet (Tutte le feste) confirming her dishonor, but also her continuing devotion to her lover. As the act draws to a close, Rigoletto spies from a window Count Monterone being led off to prison. Remembering the curse, Rigoletto now swears to exact vengeance on his employer and daughter's false lover.
Act III finds Rigoletto determined to disillusion his daughter by revealing the Duke's true nature to her. The pair arrives at the tavern of Sparafucile, to where the Duke has also been lured by the assassin's attractive sister, Maddalena (Victoria Vergara). From outside the rundown shack, Rigoletto and Gilda can observe what transpires inside. The Duke arrives, disguised as an officer of the cavalry and sings the famous misogynistic ditty about the fickleness of women (La donna è mobile). True to form, the Duke turns his attentions toward seducing Maddalena, as soon as she arrives. In a magnificently interwoven quartet, the Duke, Maddalena, Gilda, and Rigoletto sing respectively of love, flattery, heartbreak, and vengeance. Rigoletto sends his daughter away to prepare for their flight to Verona and confirms with Sparafucile their contract for the assassination of the Duke. Rigoletto will return to complete payment and claim the body of his enemy at midnight, so he can personally dispose of the corpse in the river.
Although the Duke fails to seduce Maddalena, he gains enough of her interest that she is motivated to try to persuade her brother not to go through with the intended assassination. Gilda has secretly returned and overhears the discussion between the brother and sister. Sparafucile, sniffingly, declare that he is no thief (just an assassin!) and has never betrayed a client, but agrees only to substituting another victim, should a traveler arrive before midnight. Since the body will be wrapped in a sack, Rigoletto will be none the wiser. Gilda, still in love with the Duke despite his treacherous nature, decides that she'll die for the one who deceived her. She enters the inn, knowing full well that she's walking to her death. Rigoletto returns, in a boat, at the appointed time. The sack containing the body of Gilda is lowered into his boat, through a trap door in the floor of the tavern overhead. Out on the lake, Rigoletto is about to cast the sack overboard, when he hears the voice of the Duke, singing in the distance. Realizing the deception, he opens the sack and discovers his own daughter, who he had believed safely on her way to Verona. Heartbroken, he recognizes that she has been swept up in his own plot for vengeance. Monterone's curse has been realized.
Themes: One theme of Rigoletto is a variation of the old stones and glass houses axiom. If you have a daughter whose virtue you hope to protect, it doesn't pay to taunt other fathers with similar concerns. All of us who are concerned about our own rights need to stand up for the rights of every fellow citizen. When one citizen is summarily detained, it threatens each one of us. As hard as it may sometimes be, we must each protect the freedom of speech of others, even when we abhor what they choose to say, so that we will ourselves be free to speak our minds when our own turn comes around. Rigoletto had sold his allegiance to a cruel libertine, thus contributing to an insecure society for which his own daughter ultimately pays the price, with both her dignity and her life.
Another theme of this opera relates to that slippery slope that we call vengeance. As I once suggested in another film review: before vengeance, dig two graves. Vengeance is as likely to destroy the person coveting it as the intended target. A third theme is the complexity of human character. Too many films give us characters that are all good or all bad, which can be misleading when we have to size up people in real life. We all need to recognize, for example, that a person can be a good family member and still be a crook in public or professional activities.
Production Values: The libretto for Rigoletto was adapted from a Victor Hugo play called Le roi s'amuse, which opened November 22nd, 1832. As it happens, opening night was also closing night. The play was badly performed, poorly received by the public, and even more poorly received by the authorities. They quickly declared it immoral and closed it down, notwithstanding the guarantees of free speech in the French Constitution. How Verdi became acquainted with the play is a mystery. It's certain that he never saw it performed. Nevertheless, he recognized the genius inherent in the unusual characters and asked Francesco Maria Piave, in a letter dated April 28th, 1850, to have a go at drafting an opera scenario from it. That was eight months after he had first mentioned the idea to the Neapolitan librettist Salvatore Cammarano. Verdi and Piave had already created Ernani together, based on another Hugo work, so they were prospecting in a familiar vein. The Austrian censors, who controlled artistic endeavors in northern Italy at the time, took a dim view of Verdi's idea. The story portrayed royalty in a negative light, which was unacceptable to the Austrian royal family. Verdi stubbornly persisted and locked horns with the authorities. Fortunately, an Austrian police commissioner with some good sense forged a compromise that was acceptable to both sides. The opera's locale was reset from France to Italy, the King of the play was demoted to a Duke in the opera, the jester's name was changed from Triboulet to Rigoletto, and the opera was renamed from the tentative title of La Maledizione ("The Curse") to the one by which we know the work today. Verdi was delighted because neither the dramatic content nor the distinctly contradictory characters had to be altered.
The complex quality of the characters in this opera is a big part of what makes it special. Opera usually features mostly black and white characters. That was especially the case prior to 1850. Here, however, Verdi gives us a deformed and mean-spirited jester who is the virtual embodiment of paternal love, a virtuous heroine who is nevertheless willing to die for her black-hearted seducer, and a vicious libertine who is handsome and enticing enough to seduce several of the female characters. That kind of character complexity was a new development for opera. Rigoletto also boasts a superlative dramatic structure because dark, ghoulish scenes alternate with lavish, ornate ones.
Jean-Pierre Ponnelle (1932-1988) directed about sixteen cinematic renditions of opera, beginning with The Barber of Seville in 1972 and ending with Cosi fan tutte in 1988. His productions were always splendid to look at, being filled with color, pageantry, and superb choreography. The sets for Rigoletto are both lavish and atmospheric. There's some especially skillful editing during the trio at the tavern that culminates in the stabbing of Gilda. Ponelle was the first important director of cinematographic opera and involved himself in every aspect of his films. Before turning to films, he gained extensive experience in staging opera productions for many of the major opera houses around the world, including Vienna, Milan, Zurich, Cologne, San Francisco, Munich, Chicago, the Metropolitan in New York, and Covent Garden in London. He is especially known for his Monteverdi and Mozart film legacies. He was able to consistently attract world-class performers for his video productions, which were all produced by Unitel. There is always some conflict in filming opera between musical considerations and dramatic ones. Ponnelle chose to record the music separately in a studio in order to optimize the quality of the sound. As a result, the music is post-dubbed after the filming, which some viewers find artificial or annoying. Since my top priority when enjoying opera is the music, even for filmed versions, I personally agree with Ponnelle's approach. I didn't notice many instances of poor synchronization.
The Cast: Ingvar Wixell, a world class baritone, is also a fine actor, at least relative to other operatic performers. He superbly captured the duality of the character of Rigoletto (the mean-spirited court jester and the devoted father). Wixell also doubled, in this film, as Count Monterone, which would not have been possible in a stage production. Wixell is in strong voice throughout and provides excellent phrasing. His dramatic performance is easily the strongest among the three leads. His role is also the one for which the acting is most critical to the opera's success.
Luciana Pavarotti is probably the best known opera performer in the world, especially among the general public. His magnificent tenor voice is known for its power, strength in the high register, and clarity (sometimes called "ping," meaning the ability to produce a sound like a bullet striking a solid object). Pavorotti has often appeared with two other great tenors of his generation, José Carreras and Plácido Domingo, in popular concerts, billed as "The Three Tenors." Pavarotti was born in Modena, Italy in 1935, the only son of a baker. He was an excellent soccer player as a boy, but when the Modena chorus, in which he sang, won first prize at an international competition, he decided to devote himself to singing. His first professional appearance was in 1961, as Rudolfo in La Boheme. The so-called "Pavarotti phenomenon" began in 1972, after a brilliant appearance at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in La Fille du Regiment. Pavarotti was at the height of his vocal prowess for the present production, recorded in 1982. His vocal performance is splendid and effortless throughout. The tenor aria at the beginning of Act II (Act III in most productions) is especially challenging for tenors because it is set unusually high in the tenor range, but Pavarotti navigates the challenge with trumpet-like confidence. Pavarotti's acting is never especially strong, but is at least passable in this instance.
Edita Gruberova was born in 1946 in Bratislava, in Slovakia. She studied music in Prague and Vienna. She is among the most acclaimed of all true coloratura sopranos of recent operatic history. She is known especially for her vocal clarity, agility, and power in the upper register. She made her debut in 1968 as Rosina in The Barber of Seville. She excels especially in the bel canto roles. Gruberova has what's called a lyric-coloratura voice, which means she lacks the dramatic chest tones of lyric sopranos but is capable of exceptional vocal agility. Gruberova is also known for the precision of her pitch. Her magnificent vocal qualities are especially evident in the famous aria, Caro nome, from Act I, Scene 2, in which she effortlessly glides through the demanding trills with flute-like clarity. That aria was musically my favorite moment in this production. Her voice is a perfect match for the role of Gilda. She also performed the dramatic aspect of the role with expressiveness and intensity.
There is some very good casting in the secondary roles, as well. I was impressed with Victoria Vergara as Maddalena (both vocally and dramatically) and with Ferruccio Furlanetto as Sparafucile (especially dramatically). Kathleen Kuhlmann, as the Contessa, and Giovanna Weikl, as Marullo, are also highly regarded vocalists. There were no notably weak spots in the cast.
Bottom-Line: I've had this version of Rigoletto for some time. After examining the casts for the various alternative versions and reading as many reviews as I could find for the various versions, I'd still pick this one again. Wixell's performance in the title role is extraordinary, musically and dramatically. Pavarotti is vocally magnificent and adequate dramatically. Gruberova is perfectly matched to the role of Gilda vocally and good (but not great) dramatically. The visual production values are excellent in every respect. The running time is 116 minutes, with convenient spots to break (between acts), if need be. The film is in Italian (not German as the Epinions database states) with easy to read English subtitles.
You may also enjoy my other opera reviews:
The Barber of Seville
Carmen (Dance Version)
Lucia di Lammermoor
The Magic Flute
La Traviata (Strada)
La Traviata (Moffo)
You can easily access all my other opera reviews using the following lists:
Top-Twelve Film Versions of Operas
Metalluk's Twenty Best Pre-Romantic (Baroque & Classicism) Operas, on DVD
Metalluk's Twenty-five Best Italian Romantic Period Operas, on DVD
Metalluk's Twenty Best Non-Italian Romantic Period Operas, on DVD
Metalluk's Thirty Best Operas of the 20th-Century, on DVD
Metalluk's Best Opera from Each Decade of the 20th-Century, on DVD