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‘Rigoletto’ review: toxic masculinity in high office

Portland Opera’s production of Verdi’s classic captures the composer’s critique of misogynistic leaders

By BRUCE BROWNE

Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto may be a popular classic today. But a beleaguered, thin-skinned political leader tried to strangle it at birth for daring to depict a ruler who would abuse the women around him. And who would do that in this day and age?

POA chose to open its 2018 season with one of the great works to be plucked from Verdi’s middle period (late 1840s to mid-1850s), which also included La Traviata and Il Trovatore. The 30-something-year-old composer was successful enough (and financially comfortable) at this time to select his own subject matter — and to break with musical convention.

Portland Opera’s ‘Rigoletto.’ Photo: Cory Weaver.

Verdi and his librettist Francesco Maria Piave chose Victor Hugo’s Le roi s’amuse, a play that had been banned in France after opening night in 1832. French censors claimed the play’s misogynistic royal was a reference to the then-current King Louis-Philippe. (Hugo was to have his say about the reign of Louis-Philippe three decades later in Les Miserables).

The Verdi/Piave blueblood, the Duke of Mantua, is the poster boy for misogyny, displaying his attitude with great elan in the beginning of the show with the aria ‘Quest o Quella” (this [woman] or that one), and he’s already seduced a vast number of the female courtiers including wives and daughters of his own henchmen.

The “revolting morality and obscene triviality of the libretto” (Life of Verdi, John Roselli, Cambridge University Press, 2000) was only one of the elements that, according to the letter from the Imperial and Royal Central Director to the composer, precluded Verdi from opening the show. In fact, it’s more likely that Italy’s real King, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte (Napoleon III) felt, in these tumultuous times, more than a hint of criticism coming his way, and wanted none of it.

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