Giuseppe Verdi based Rigoletto (1851) on Le Roi s’amuse, a play by Victor Hugo first given in 1832, which was in turn based on the life of the sixteenth-century French King François I. Though Hugo’s play ostensibly depicted the escapades of some long-gone monarch, censors believed that the play also contained insulting references to the reigning Louis-Philippe, and a ministerial decree banned it after one performance. Hugo was incensed. He took up the matter in court, contending that censoring the work expressly violated the protection of speech guaranteed in the Charter of 1830. Hugo lost the suit, however, and Le Roi s’amuse did not see the stage in its original form for another fifty years. In the meantime, Hugo became an honored member of the king’s peerage, though he regularly spoke out against the capital punishment and social injustice, and in favor of freedom of the press and self-government. Corruption and unchecked authority became key thematic elements in his work—two topics that similarly interested Verdi and inspired him to challenge the naysayers who also sought to keep his operatic adaptation at bay.
The whole effort to ban the work backfired. First, Hugo privately published the play, adding a preface that made a blistering defense of the work:
The play is immoral? Do you think so? Is it the subject? Triboulet [the jester, Rigoletto in the opera] is deformed, Triboulet is unhealthy, Triboulet is a court buffoon—a three-fold misery which makes him evil. Triboulet hates the King because he is King, the nobles because they are nobles, and he hates ordinary men because they do not have humps on their backs. His only pastime is to set the nobles unceasingly against the King, crushing the weaker by the stronger.
Shortly thereafter, Le Roi s’amuse became standard (albeit scandalous) armchair reading and Verdi’s adaptation would later enjoy more than a hundred performances in Parisian opera houses, even while the original play was still banned from spoken theatres.
Verdi signed the contract to produce a new opera for the Teatro la Fenice in Venice in April 1850. He wrote the librettist Francesco Maria Piave, emphatically suggesting Hugo’s play as their newest subject: “Run about the city and find someone of influence to get us permission to do Le Roi s’amuse. Don’t go to sleep; give yourself a good shake; do it at once.” Piave did so, but not with the degree of certainty he should have given the disreputable reputation of the work.
In October 1850 there came a stern directive ordering Verdi and Piave to send at once the libretto to the Venetian official in charge of public order. After the Revolutions of 1848 and the unsuccessful First Italian War of Independence, the Habsburg Empire (who ruled over northern Italy at this time from Vienna) and their proxies were doubling down on sanctions and censorships, subduing the tiniest spark of insurrection in the Italian tinderbox. The powers that be were not impressed by the subject: Verdi and Piave “should have chosen a more worthy vehicle to display their talents than the repulsive immorality and obscene triviality of La Maledizione [The Curse, Rigoletto’s original title].” Its performance was forbidden, alterations would be rejected, and appeals ignored. It seemed as though history was repeating itself.
Nevertheless, Verdi and Piave pushed forward, recasting several details of the story, and sought a censor whose ear would be more easily swayed by Verdi’s music. First, they removed the venue from the French court (who were in cahoots with the Habsburgs) to the independent Duchy of Mantua; then François I would become an unidentified Duke—though the Gonzaga family that ruled during the time of the story would have no complaints anyway since the last heir had died a century earlier; and lastly, they changed all other names to further distance the characters from Hugo’s original. Though Verdi had earlier called Hugo’s Triboulet “a creation worthy of Shakespeare”—very high praise from someone who completed three Shakespeare-based operas and struggled with sketches for a King Lear most of his life—the character and his world had to undergo an ingenious transformation to pass muster in an increasingly fraught political environment.
By a similar means of disguise, Hugo’s play would visit the United States at the end of nineteenth century, alighting at the same time as the dawn of the Gilded Age, an era when serious social problems were masked by a thin gold gilding bequeathed by the likes of the Vanderbilts, Morgans, and Rockefellers. In the preface to the English script, which also moved the setting to the Italian Renaissance, the play was described as entirely novel, owing even less to Hugo than it did to history. And though this could hardly have been the whole truth, every attempt was made by the translator to distance the English version from the original play and the opera. In such an age as ours, they asserted, the jester is “an impossibility,” relegated to the past, “that age of cruelty, splendor, romance, passion, change, and general upheaval and strife.” And the whopping coincidence that Rigoletto’s English-language doppelgänger was played in the United States exclusively by Edwin Booth—an esteemed actor whose achievements in American theatre are generally overshadowed by the actions of his more notorious brother, John Wilkes—seems yet another inconvenient association for the story.
Dressing Rigoletto as a mob boss’s barman is Jonathan Miller’s contribution to this lineage of Triboulet. Moved to mafia Manhattan in the 1950s, this production first appeared in 1982 with English National Opera and has since been seen around the world. In his own published recollections of 1986, Miller made that case that the setting of Rigoletto may be effectively transferred geographically and chronologically if a “revealing correspondence” can be seen between the events represented in the opera and the new location. After all, some elements of organized crime are not that different in their structures from the social hierarchies of the European courts of yore. And while some of us will undoubtedly respond more positively to the “update” than others, none of us can ignore the fact that what Miller is doing with this production is moving the story uncomfortably close to our own present.
This story—one that can be distilled to the jester’s pleas for pity in a pitiless world, an unchallenged tyrant who ultimately loses nothing, and the innocent, doomed bystander and prey to their aggression—resonates with us at a primal level, no matter where and how you set this story. Each of these moments in the life of Triboulet-Rigoletto is a product of its time and place: Hugo attempted to use his fragile freedom of speech to vent contemporary corruption; Verdi and Piave made the repulsive immorality of Rigoletto palatable to the crown’s cronies by placing it in the distant past; Edwin Booth tried to claim the work as his own, making it a cornerstone of American theatre at a time when we could hardly see the blinding sparkle of progress as willed by robber barons; and Jonathan Miller has reinvented the work again, teaching us that this work still has more available interpretations, more insights to offer. And now, in our own age of intrigue, misogyny, and locker room talk, maybe Rigoletto will soon change his guise again. As one critic of Booth’s performance noted, this story “fulfills the purpose of tragedy—for it overwhelms the mind with terror and the heart with pity, and therein it tends to elevate the moral and spiritual being."