Mar 112017

On this date in 1851 Verdi’s Rigoletto premiered in Venice. I’ve already highlighted Verdi —  — and the post included a brief nod to Rigoletto because it was a milestone in the development of opera, not only intertwining complex dramatic elements but also showcasing a variety of musical styles, not least being the eternal favorite “La donna è mobile” (whose title I used just this week in pointing out the difference to my students in the use of the direct article in English and Italian). I’m not inclined to do a massive analysis of Rigoletto here, but I do feel the need to say something given that I live right behind a museum called “Rigoletto’s House” (opposite palazzo ducale), touristic tribute to the fact that the opera is set in Mantua.

Rigoletto was set in Mantua, in the long past, to escape problems with Austrian censors. Verdi was commissioned to write a new opera by the La Fenice opera house in Venice in 1850. By this time he was already a well-known composer and had a degree of freedom in choosing the works he would prefer to set to music. He then asked Francesco Maria Piave (with whom he had already created Ernani, I due Foscari, Macbeth, Il Corsaro and Stiffelio) to examine the play Kean by Alexandre Dumas, père, but he was not happy with the subject matter. Then Verdi stumbled upon Victor Hugo’s five-act play Le roi s’amuse. He later explained that “The subject is grand, immense, and there is a character that is one of the greatest creations that the theatre can boast of, in any country and in all history.” It was a highly controversial subject, and Hugo himself had already had trouble with censorship in France, which had banned productions after its first performance nearly twenty years earlier (it would not be performed again until 1882). As Austria at that time directly controlled much of Northern Italy, it came before the Austrian Board of Censors. Hugo’s play depicted a king (Francis I of France) as an immoral and cynical womanizer, and this subject did not sit well with the powers that be.

From the beginning, Verdi was aware of the risks, as was Piave. In a letter which Verdi wrote to Piave: “Use four legs, run through the town and find me an influential person who can obtain the permission for making Le Roi s’amuse.” Correspondence between a prudent Piave and an already committed Verdi followed, but the two underestimated the power and the intentions of Austrians and remained at risk. Even the friendly Guglielmo Brenna, secretary of La Fenice, who had promised them that they would not have problems with the censors, was wrong. At the beginning of the summer of 1850, rumors started to spread that Austrian censorship was going to forbid the production. The censors considered the Hugo work to verge on lèse majesté and would never permit such a scandalous work to be performed in Venice. In August, Verdi and Piave prudently retired to Busseto, Verdi’s hometown, to continue the composition and prepare a defensive scheme. They wrote to the theater, assuring them that the censor’s doubts about the morality of the work were not justified but since very little time was left, very little could be done. At the time, Piave and Verdi had titled the opera La maledizione (The Curse), and this unofficial title was used by Austrian censor De Gorzkowski in an emphatic letter written in December 1850 in which he definitively denied consent to its production, calling it “a repugnant [example of] immorality and obscene triviality.”

By January 1851 the parties were able to agree that the action of the opera would be moved from the royal court of France to a duchy of France or Italy, and some of the characters would have to be renamed. In the new version the Duke reigns over Mantua and belongs to the Gonzaga family. The House of Gonzaga had long been extinct by the mid-19th century, and the Dukedom of Mantua no longer existed, thus no one could be offended. So, even though the connexion with Mantua is purely pragmatic and not motivated by any dramatic necessity, we reap the benefit.

Rigoletto premiered on 11 March 1851 to a sold-out La Fenice as the first part of a double bill with Giacomo Panizza’s ballet Faust. Gaetano Mares conducted, and the sets were designed and executed by Giuseppe Bertoja and Francesco Bagnara. The opening night was a complete triumph, especially the scena drammatica and the Duke’s cynical aria, “La donna è mobile”, which was sung in the streets the next morning. Verdi had maximised the aria’s impact by revealing it to the cast and orchestra only a few hours before the premiere, and forbidding them to sing, whistle or even think of the melody outside of the theater. Many years later, Giulia Cora Varesi, the daughter of Felice Varesi (the original Rigoletto), described her father’s performance at the premiere. Varesi was very uncomfortable with the false hump he had to wear. He was so uncertain that, even though he was an experienced singer, he had a panic attack when it was his turn to enter the stage. Verdi immediately realized he was paralyzed and roughly pushed him on the stage, so he appeared with a clumsy tumble. The audience, thinking it was an intentional gag, was very amused

Numerous tenors and sopranos have performed the key roles and there are many recordings to choose from.  This one amuses me. It’s not stellar but I rather dislike Pavarotti’s renditions which are everywhere.  In his earlier years (in the 1960s) he was great, but fame got to him, I fear, and by the time he was a household name, in my oh so humble opinion, he had developed an oversized ego (and body) and an undersized style corrupted by a desire to please audience with cheap theatrics.  I’ll take Caruso (or most any other tenor) any day of the week and twice on Sundays over Pavarotti.

A Venetian dish might be in order given the location of the premiere, but I like Mantuan cuisine and the opera is set here.  So let’s go with another Mantuan specialty, luccio in salsa (pike in sauce). I’m sure you can make a reasonable simulacrum, but without Garda Lake pike and Italian anchovies it won’t be the same.  Pike is not an easy fish to prepare because it is riddled with small epipleural or Y-bones. It is best to get fillets from large fish and inspect them carefully, removing any bones you find with tweezers.

Luccio in Salsa


½ kg pike fillets
1 onion
1 carrot
1 celery stalk
1 cup dry white wine
salt and pepper to taste

150 g salted anchovies
150 g capers
150 g fresh parsley
extra virgin olive oil


Poach the fish gently in a pan with the water and wine plus the onion, carrot and celery all cut in large chunks. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Finely chop the capers, parsley and anchovies. Then mix in olive oil to taste. Too little oil will make the sauce over salty.

Separate the fillets into medium-sized pieces, place them on a serving dish and pour over the sauce. Let the fish and sauce rest so that the flavors marry.  Some Mantuan cooks mash the fish slightly with a fork and then add the sauce.

Serve with toasted polenta.