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From the page to the opera stage: the dangerous lunatics of Hugo and Verdi in “Le roi s’amuse” and “Rigoletto”

“Page to Opera Stage” examines stories – real or fictional, old and new – that have inspired operas, and how those stories have been edited and dramatized to fit a new medium. In this episode, we look at another play – this one loosely based on reality – that was later adapted into a (more heavily fictionalized) opera: Victor Hugo’s “Le Roi s’amuse” and “Rigoletto” by Giuseppe Verdi and Francisco Maria Piave. .”

Today Victor Hugo is perhaps best known for his mammoth novels, “Les Miserables” and “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame” foremost among them. The French author, however, was surprisingly prolific during his 64-year career – and after, if posthumous works are included. Most of his writing between 1827 and 1838 was for the Parisian stage, with pieces such as ‘Cromwell’, ‘Hernani’, ‘Lucrezia Borgia’ and ‘Ruy Blas’ keeping him busy and paid off.

But not all beginnings were smooth. On November 22, 1832, his first play “Le roi s’amuse” received only one performance before censorship prohibited its distribution for 50 years. With a title that roughly translates to “Le Roi s’amuse” or “Le Roi s’amuse”, the work scandalizes with its caustic depiction of the 16th-century monarch Francis I and his the infamous jester Triboulet. Hugo had dared to imply that perhaps the divine right of kings was not worth the ruin their whims left in their wake. And in this fictional story, the jester Triboulet dared to plot the death of the king following the kidnapping of his daughter – an unthinkable move even in response to an unthinkable crime.

Hugo was furious with his treatment. When releasing the play in print, the author – never at a loss for words – included an essay before the text of the drama decrying the precedent set by its theatrical censorship. Based on the “Charter-Truth(Charter of Truth) of 1830, he argues that his case is one of theft and suppression, setting a dangerous precedent where the “right to publish” is enshrined.

Undoubtedly, if we only consider the insignificance of the work and the author in question here, the ministerial affair which strikes them is not a great deal. It’s just a nasty little literary coup d’etat, which has no other merit than not to upset the set of arbitrary acts which it follows. But, if we go higher, we will see that this affair is not only a question of drama and poet, but […] that liberty and property are fully engaged in the matter. These are high and serious interests; and, although the author is obliged to engage this important affair by a simple commercial lawsuit at the Théâtre-Français, unable to directly attack the ministry, barricaded behind the objections of inadmissibility of the Council of State, he hopes that his cause will be in the eyes of all a great cause […] He will speak himself, if necessary, of the independence of his art. He will plead his right with firmness, with seriousness and simplicity, without hatred or fear of anyone. He counts on the help of all, on the frank and cordial support of the press, on the justice of public opinion, on the equity of the courts. He will succeed, he is sure. The state of siege will be lifted in the literary city as in the political city.

Unfortunately, he lost his battles against the censors and was forced to cover legal costs. “Le roi s’amuse” was no longer published in 1883, two years before Hugo’s death. But his life was far from dormant.

Giuseppe Verdi was no stranger to controversy during his career. By the time he came across Hugo’s text in 1850, he had altered and obscured the source details of “I due Foscari”, “Ernani” (from Hugo’s “Hernani”) and “Stiffelio” to suit the censors and to the public – although in the case of the last opera the changes did not prevent frequent withdrawals. Therefore, when the scathing criticism and high-pitched melodrama of “Le Roi s’amuse” caught his eye and that of librettist Francesco Maria Piave, he saw no obstacle too great for the operatic stage.

To avoid the hostile reception of the Austrian authorities in Venice, the opera was moved from France to Mantua. The king was demoted to an unnamed duke, and everyone got new names. The Criminal Siblings Saltabadi and Maguelonne were renamed Sparafucile and Maddalena, the jester’s daughter changed from Blanche to Gilda, and the jester became the main character: Rigoletto. The opera’s premiere was authorized on March 11, 1851 to a sold-out crowd and an overnight triumph.

Social niceties

In writing “Rigoletto,” Piave steals some of Hugo’s most poetic lines almost word for word, retaining a rhyming scene that mirrors French. Perhaps the most obvious – and most unforgettable – is when the jester arranges the murder of his boss.


Son name? Do you want to know mine too?

It is called the crime, and I the punishment!


Vuoi sapere anche il mio?

Egli è Delitto, Punishment son io.

Along with the name changes, Verdi and Piave left many of the play’s most biting social criticisms on the cutting room floor. Some sacrifices, however, appear to be more dramatic than politically motivated. By cutting a five-act play to a two-hour operatic duration, many named courtiers had their roles cut or excised altogether. Several scenes of court jokes – including the lines giving its name to “Le roi s’amuse” (“a king who has fun is a dangerous king” – “a king who has fun is a dangerous king”) – disappeared. Rigoletto thus becomes the primary eye through which the Duke’s actions are viewed instead of one of the King’s many acerbic observers and commentators.

In addition to reducing the number of soloists required, “Rigoletto” plays more like a family tragedy than an incendiary commentary on absolute power. The role of Blanche/Gilda is left relatively intact and she is introduced much earlier in the story after a courtship scene. Thus, the text of the play and the libretto of the opera read completely differently, the first emphasizing the witty repartee and the second on the fragile and secretive family which is undone by the duke’s lechery.

What’s in a name?

Verdi and Piave added additional meaning to the new names of their main characters by appeasing the censors. Rigoletto may have been borrowed from the 1835 vaudeville “Rigoletti, or the Last of the Fools”, itself a play on the French “rigolo” – “drôle”. The name becomes more and more of a cruel joke as the opera evolves into tragedy.

Hugo’s doomed daughter, Blanche – “white” in French – evokes purity and innocence with her name. Instead of opting for the Italian “Bianca”, the team chose to name their heroine Gilda – an Italian name derived from Old Germanic for “sacrifice”. Like her father, her name takes on new meaning as she decides to offer herself to the assassin instead of the Duke. Unlike his father, his name is sincere foreshadowing rather than dramatic irony.

The curse

Finally, Verdi emphasizes musically and dramatically the hugo motif of the aggrieved father. In Hugo’s first act, M de Saint-Vallier – the father of a daughter used and abused by the king – places a curse on Triboulet’s head for laughing at a father’s pain. The curse, of course, comes to fruition, but it is largely not mentioned in the back half of the play. Hugo can rely on the audience to connect the themes, but Verdi misses no opportunity for a thundering musical motif.

The prelude to “Rigoletto” opens with a crescendo of chords in the brass, which morphs until the duke’s party begins on stage. The chord returns when Monterone (the renamed Saint Vallier) curses Rigoletto, then again at the end of the first act when he realizes that Gilda has been kidnapped (“Ah, la maledizione!”). Verdi repeats this formidable motif and Rigoletto his cry of anguish at the end of the opera, after the death of Gilda. Fate is as inevitable and inescapable as the power of a king in ‘Rigoletto’ – and the opera’s power and emotion have secured its place as a leader on opera stages around the world for the past 170 years. years.

All “The King Amuses” quotes are taken from the Project Gutenberg Edition (in French only); translations are by the author. Piave’s libretto for Verdi’s “Rigoletto” can be found here in Italian and English

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