Piave and the Duke: Keys to Verdi's Rigoletto

Classic Arts Features   Piave and the Duke: Keys to Verdi's Rigoletto
The librettist for 11 of Verdi's operas is scorned by scholars. Why?

The two most maligned figures connected with Verdi's Rigoletto are the conscienceless Duke of Mantua, its leading tenor…and Francesco Maria Piave, the opera's much-scorned librettist.

The Duke is, perhaps, deservedly hated. The epitome of amorality, he is, according to Folco Portinari, in his book Pari Siamo (named for Rigoletto's monologue in Act I, Scene 2), "possibly the most successful negative figure in Italian culture."

The Duke is surely a "singing anti-hero," but Piave is an "unsung hero." The librettist of eleven Verdi operas and the composer's most frequent collaborator, he remains the object of much scholarly debate and derision. A number of American, English, and even Italian critics dismiss him variously as "a Venetian literary amateur," "hardly an outstanding poet," and "a hack." Antonio Cassi Ramelli, in his Libretti and Librettists, calls Piave "insipid" and says it is "basically correct" to have a negative perception of his work.

In reality, however, the librettist of La Traviata, Simon Boccanegra (first version) and La forza del destino, as well as Rigoletto is an important literary figure. Pierluigi Petrobelli, director of the National Institute of Verdi Studies in Parma, has portrayed Piave as a key figure in Verdi's output. Petrobelli concurs with the findings of a fellow Italian musicologist, Francesco Paolo Russo, who has traced Piave's literary development to his relationship with Jacopo Ferretti, the librettist of Rossini's Cenerentola, who was in Rome during the 1830s. In Ferretti's home, a magnet for artists and Roman visitors, Petrobelli said, Piave learned the art of improvisational poetry and the "technique of versification" ‹skills that would later serve him admirably.

Returning to his native Venice in the 1840s, Piave met Verdi by chance at the Teatro la Fenice in 1843. Their first operatic collaboration, Ernani, was based on the play Hernani by Victor Hugo. Seven years later, another of the great Frenchman's plays, Le Roi s'amuse (literally, "The King Amuses Himself") would inspire Rigoletto. The title character of this play, based on the historic King François I of France, would be transmuted into the Duke of Mantua, a Renaissance nobleman, in this most famous and most successful of all Verdi-Piave collaborations.

"'Piave has great facility,'" Petrobelli quotes Verdi as saying of his librettist's work on Ernani. But Verdi was not often so generous in his praise. In fact, the composer's deprecatory nicknames for Piave portray the librettist as some sort of fool. With a stretch of the imagination, one might infer that the relationship between Verdi and Piave bears some similarity to that of the Duke and Rigoletto.

But if Verdi did browbeat and patronize Piave, it was only to obtain tighter, more dramatic verses from him. And the exacting composer apparently succeeded. In the first moments of Rigoletto, Piave captures the Duke in a few fleet phrases:

Questa o quella per me
pari sono
This woman or that one‹they're all
the same
A quant' altre d'intorno mi vedo, as any others I see around me.

With his innate sense of power, the Duke, the only nameless character in the piece, asserts his "right" to use any woman for his own gratification. Rhoda Levine, director of the current NYCO production of Rigoletto, notes, "The Duke simply believes that he is deserving of his inherited unlimited power. A duke is normally responsible for the 'health and morality' of his domain, yet, in Rigoletto, the Duke of Mantua uses power only as it serves his own need. His responsibility toward others is not considered."

The Duke thus sets the tragedy in motion as soon as the curtain goes up. Otherwise stated: Without the Duke, there is no Rigoletto.

In the second act of the opera, Piave and Verdi faced their biggest challenge in defining the Duke's character and transforming Le Roi s'amuse into Rigoletto. In Act III of Hugo's play, the King reveals his true identity to Blanche (Gilda) and claims her as his mistress. Blanche flees from the King and hides in his bedchamber. In a then-notorious scene, the King pulls a gold key from his belt and says, "I have the key." He opens the door to the bedroom and enters, closing the door behind him.

What presumably occurs in the bedroom, albeit offstage, led to the censorship of the play. The morning after its 1832 premiere, the Parisian authorities closed down Le Roi s'amuse. France did not see the play again for 50 years.

With this nagging notoriety, as well as pressure from local Venetian authorities, Verdi's operatic version of it was also in danger of being censored. Verdi knew the King's scene with Blanche would be a red flag. The scene of the key had to go. Neither incident was ever incorporated into the opera.

Piave's text for the Duke's second act aria, "Parmi veder le lagrime" ("To see amidst the tears"), is an excellent substitute for the offending scenes. Contrary to popular opinion about Piave's verses, the poetry rises to new heights and exposes some fascinating shades of the Duke's character.

…Quando fra il dubbio e l'ansia
Del sùbito periglio,
Dell'amor nostro memore
Il suo Gualtier
Ned ei potea soccorrerti,
Cara fanciulla amata;
Ei che vorria coll'anima
Farti quaggiù beata…

…When, amidst doubt and fear
of sudden danger,
recalling our love,
she called for her "Gualtier."
Would that he could come
to your aid,
my dear, adorèd girl;
he who would wish with his
entire soul
to make you blessed on earth…

The obvious explanation for this aria could be that the Duke has some real feeling for Gilda. Perhaps. However, it seems doubtful that the Duke can sustain any moral feelings for very long‹something of which he may even be aware. Tellingly, Verdi turns momentarily to the minor mode when the Duke admits ruefully that he is not Gualtier Maldé, the "poor student" in whose guise he won Gilda's heart, and cannot save her. At the end of the aria, Piave (guided by Verdi's hand) leaves both the Duke and the audience wondering: How will he act on his feelings for Gilda?

The Duke's courtiers provide the answer. They reveal that they have sequestered Gilda in the Duke's chamber. In the ensuing cabaletta, "Possente amor mi chiama" ("Powerful love calls me"), the Duke portrays himself (in the third person) as a "slave to love," and rushes offstage into the privacy of his bedroom.

We can intuit what transpires there, but do we really know? Ms. Levine believes Gilda may have willingly surrendered herself to the Duke out of desire and love for him, be he student or nobleman. Do his actions toward Gilda, then, make him the "monster" he calls himself in the last act? Or is he just one more libertine taking what he believes is his due?

"I believe that the Duke, a man who often disguises himself to get what he wants, is a totally self-serving human being," Ms. Levine says. "His idea of 'love' is simply a matter of self-satisfaction. Incapable of empathy, he has no concern for the feelings and well-being of the 'objects' of his desire."

If the Duke cared at all for Gilda, there is no trace of this in the last act. In a new disguise, with a new territory for conquest (Maddalena), he erases‹or has already erased‹Gilda from his heart with the flippant "La donna è mobile."

Here, again, Piave deserves major praise. The librettist owes the first stanza to Hugo, who, in turn, copied verses written by the historic King François I. However, the second verse of the aria does not appear in the play, and it seems likely, then, that it is Piave's:

E sempre misero He will always suffer
Chi a lei s'affida who trusts a woman,
Chi le confide He who confides in her
Mal cauto il core! has an imprudent heart!
Pur mai non sentesi But he will never feel
Felice appieno happy enough,
Chi su quel seno who does not
Non liba amore. drink love from that breast!

"Bad taste!" cried many critics when they heard such lyrics. But in decrying the text, they seem to have missed an important point: The famous aria could actually be another of the Duke's disguises, for in it, he is actually describing himself, not his women.

"The Duke lies constantly to achieve his ends. He is insatiable," Ms. Levine points out. He can appear at any time in different aspects, soundlessly, wordlessly, triumphantly, as he does at the end of the second and third acts of the NYCO production.

"Regardless of the suffering he has created in others, he is in no way afflicted by conscience." Ms. Levine says. "His needs have been met. That is all that is important to him. The Duke is still present, he will be present, and he will continue to be present."

To Ms. Levine, the issues inherent in Rigoletto find their correlation in today's world: "We look around us and see so many existing examples of self-service, and the abuse of power. That is why the opera is so current, so profound, and so frightening."

Surely Francesco Maria Piave felt this as he and Verdi brought the Duke of Mantua, and the rest of Rigoletto, vividly to life.

Tenor and stage director Michael Philip Davis was recently appointed General Director and Manager of the Bay Area Summer Opera Theater Institute (BASOTI) in San Francisco.

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