The public went wild for Rigoletto from the moment it premiered, in spite of the few critics of what was, then, a modern approach: greater through-composition. It is hard for early twenty-first century listeners to give credence to the idea that there are not enough arias in Rigoletto. We leave the theater humming, and the only difficulty is deciding upon which of the infectious tunes we should surrender our brains to for the trip home. But analysis bears out that, as a matter of form, there are, in fact, fewer “arias”—with breaks for applause—than in the Bel Canto operas just a few years earlier and this, in part, creates a different esthetic. Still, there was more than enough excitement to carry the work past its (very few) most hide-bound critics.
What contributes to this excitement? Melody and great singing, of course. But it is also worth considering how it is built, including the support from the orchestra pit. We can begin with the opera’s single, simple motive on a single pitch—the “Curse” motive. It evokes and stokes foreboding from the first bar of the overture until catharsis at Rigoletto’s final, anguished cry over his daughter’s body. Even the Duke’s “La donna è mobile” (“Women are fickle”), though it only appears in the last act, packs a body punch when Rigoletto last hears it.
In this opera, too, Verdi continued to explore how he could use the orchestra expressively. True, we do not normally think first of Verdi when we think of orchestration. There are moments when Giacomo Puccini or, certainly, Richard Strauss—with their larger orchestras—would have drawn even more attention to the orchestra pit and, perhaps, lengthened the opera somewhat. (And lesser composers would have gone on too long with something less imaginative.) Instead, and especially in the earlier operas, Giuseppe Verdi’s use of the orchestra is, simply, theatrically perfect and rarely feels like a momentary digression or an extra spoonful of condiment.
An example of one of Verdi’s more unusual and original touches may be heard in the eerie atmosphere for the Act I duet between Rigoletto and the assassin Sparafucile. There are none of the higher instruments such as flutes, oboes, or violins. The duet is scored for clarinets, bassoons, bass drum, violas, cellos, and basses. But the most remarkable feature is that the main melody is given to solo cello and solo bass that are muted.
We can also consider Rigoletto’s storm. Storms are always crowd pleasers. However, in Rigoletto, we have an offstage chorus in addition to the orchestra’s evocation of the rain and wind. It is an interesting addition. One’s first thought might be that the chorus represents the wind. But, in none of Verdi’s other storms do we hear a chorus. It has also been suggested that these voices may well be the ghosts of Sparafucile’s past victims. Something to think about.
All in all, this relatively early work continues to enthrall audiences after 160 years. It has a flawed character’s sympathetic story, exquisite melody, and enough opportunity for virtuosity. That it continues to elicit enthusiasm from artists who have performed it many times fuels the excitement, and that enthusiasm follows directly from a construction that is both solid and beautiful.