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The online opera guide to RIGOLETTO

The opera is regarded as Verdi’s first masterpiece and established his worldwide fame. The third act is one of the highlights of all opera literature.



Overview and quick access







♪ Act I (Curse scene, Street & balcony scene)

♪ Act II (Palace scene, Stone Guest)

♪ Act III (Inn scene)

Recording Recommendation


Questa o quella

Figlia! Mio padre

Caro nome

Ella mi fu rapita…parmi veder

Possente amor mi chiama

Povero Rigoletto

Cortigiani, vil razza dannata

Tutte le feste al tempio

La donna è mobile

Bella figlia d’amore (Quartetto)

Ah piu non ragiono

Lassu in cielo





Roles and Synopsis






Venice, 1851


Francesco Maria Piave, based on the novel Le roi s'amuse by Victor Hugo

Main roles

Rigoletto, court jester of the Duke of Mantua (baritone) - Gilda, his daughter (soprano) Sparafucile, hired assassin (bass) - Maddalena, his sister (mezzo-soprano) - Duca, Duke of Mantua (tenor) - Ceprano, count and courtier (bass) - Marullo, courtier (baritone) - Monterone, count and father (baritone)

Recording recommendation

DECCA, Sherill Milnes, Luciano Pavarotti and Joan Sutherland conducted by Richard Bonynge and the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus or EMI, Tito Gobbi, Maria Callas and Giuseppe di Stefano conducted by Tullio Serafin and the Coro e Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala.








The literary source

The novel “Le roi s’amuse” by Victor Hugo is the model for this opera. When it was first performed in 1832, almost 20 years before the premiere of Rigoletto, this novel caused a political scandal in Paris and was banned after the first performance. Even twenty years later, Verdi and his librettist Piave had to recognize that the censorship still regarded the material as problematic. To portray a king as a libertine and then to show a contract killer who is supposed to assassinate the king, that was too much for the Venetian / Austrian censorship. The libretto was written by Francesco Maria Piave, who was also in charge of the contact with the censorship office, which led to occasional tensions with Verdi. They had to move the scenic location from Paris to Mantua and the king was downgraded to duke. Otherwise Verdi and Piave followed the literary model. Textually, Piave “merely” had to translate the images into a concise operatic language.



The jester Rigoletto

Victor Hugo called the jester Triboulet, Verdi and Piave had to change his name by order of the censorship. For Verdi, the Jester was the key figure of this opera (“a person worthy of Shakespeare!”) and it was important to him to be able to engage the brilliant singer-actor Felice Varesi for the premiere, who had already premiered Macbeth. The physical deformity of the hunchback was the metaphor and the reflection of the Duke’s moral deformity. As a counterpart, they drew the frivolous Duca, whose superficiality Verdi underpinned with popular touches, which ironically made this role one of the most famous tenor roles ever.



«Tinta musicale» of «Rigoletto»

The “tinta musicale” of “Rigoletto” is determined by the gloominess of the role and the music of the court jester (somber chords, dotted curse motif, etc.) and the contrast with the courtly gaiety of the Duke (arias in minuet form). In addition, all roles except primo tenore and primo soprano were entrusted to lower voice ranges. A second important aspect of the tinta of Rigoletto is the frequency of the duets. Verdi himself called Rigoletto a “succession of duets”.




Composition history and premiere

Verdi considered Rigoletto to be one of his most successful works; hardly any other opera had inspired him so much. The resulting surge of creativity led to one of the shortest composition periods in Verdi’s oeuvre. The composition process took barely forty days and, as usual, he wrote out the orchestral parts while rehearsals were still in progress.

The premiere took place on March 11, 1851 at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice and became a surprising triumph. The innovative staging also played a not insignificant role. For the first time, three-dimensional stage structures were carpentered instead of scenery, and the Fenice’s new stage technology allowed for realistic stage effects, such as the thunderstorm scenes of the third act. The music was acclaimed and the work subsequently spread rapidly across the continent.








A dramatic overture – the curse motif

Synopsis: In the palace of the Duke of Mantua. A great feast is in progress.

The dominant motif of this overture is the dotted motif of the curse. The overture is all that the opera is: dark and tragic. A solo trumpet plays a repeated C followed by heavy brass chords which then merge into the curse motif.

We hear the great overture from the Vienna Philharmonic recording under the baton of Carlo Maria Giulini. Mighty crescendi make the listener shiver.

Overture  –  Giulini



The first of the Duke’s famous arias: Questa o quella

Synopsis: The Duke talks to the Count of Borsa about a mysterious bourgeois woman whom he has been observing for some time. But the duke does not want to commit himself to any woman. Too many temptations keep the restless seducer busy.

With this aria Verdi draws a great portrait of the count. It describes him as a vain, superficial but charming cynic. He is an egoist who takes all liberties. It is amazing, Verdi gives all the famous melodies of this opera this negative character.
The aria Questa o quella seems at first glance to be an uncomplicated thing. However large parts of the aria are written in a high pitch (but without having a high B or C) and are a challenge for tenors with a more baritonal voice like Caruso or Domingo.

Listen to the great interpretation by Luciano Pavarotti in the Ponnelle film adaptation. His “Questa e quella” is elegant yet seductive.

Questa o quella – Pavarotti


You hear another version by Jussi Björling with beautiful metal in his voice.

Questa o quella – Björling


Synopsis: The Countess of Ceprano is also one of the chosen ones. She wants to leave the feast. The Duke wants to persuade her to stay. Rigoletto, a hunchbacked and unsightly court jester, mocks the Count of Ceprano publicly. Suddenly a news is announced. Rigoletto is said to have a lover. Ceprano, the doubly humiliated man, swears revenge on the sharp-tongued Rigoletto.


Rigoletto is cursed

Synopsis: The Count of Monterone enters the palace. Rigoletto also mocks him because his daughter is one of the Duke’s lovers and she has lost her honour. The Duke orders the arrest of the intruder. The count curses Rigoletto and the Duke, with the words “Who mock at a father’s grief, My curse be upon you”). Horrified, Rigoletto leaves the palace.


When Monterone takes up the curse motif for the first time, the orchestra and the other singers remain silent, only the voice of Monterone can be heard. This enhances the effect of the curse motif. Then the curse motive is repeated twice, the basses (cello and double bass) play tremoli to strengthen the uncanny atmosphere of the curse.

Ch’io gli parli



Rigoletto encounters the contract killer Sparafucile

Synopsis: In the street at night, Rigoletto encounters the murderer Sparafucile. He offers his services to Rigoletto. Rigoletto memorizes his name, but has no assignment for the time being.

Verdi composed a ghostly, dark mood for this duet. Pale, dissonant chords of clarinets and bassoons introduce the scene. It is very unusual that the following duet (mainly in sprechgesang) is written entirely without violins. The cellos and double basses give the scene a peculiar dark color.

See it in a version for television filmed in Mantua. This scene in medieval Mantua is simply magnificent.

Quel vecchio maledivami! – Wixell / Furlanetto


You will hear a second version of this scene with the pitch dark voice of Sparafucile Marti Talvela.

Quel vecchio maledivami! – Milnes / Talvela




Pari siamo – Rigoletto’s great monologue

Synopsis: Rigoletto is desperate about his fate. With his deformed, hunchbacked body he is doomed to the role of court jester.

“He with a dagger, I am the man who mocks,” Rigoletto honestly speaks to himself. It is a monologue, of a man who has become embittered by his fate – unhappy about his deformed body and in a profession he hates.
Rigoletto hurls his words out, sparsely accompanied by excited tremolo strings and twice interrupted by the curse motif. Only in the second part do we hear a brightening that is introduced by a flute as he thinks of his daughter. Finally he ends again in the mood of the beginning. Pari siamo is not an aria in the conventional sense. Verdi strives for maximum differentiation from the person of Duca, the role with the traditional arias. This aspect is an important part of the Tinta musicale of Rigoletto.

We listen to this monologue by Robert Merrill. He was one of the great baritones of the 50s. For him it was clear that Rigoletto was the greatest role ever written for a baritone.

Pari siamo – Merrill

The duet Gilda – Rigoletto

Synopsis: He goes to his daughter’s house, the only ray of hope in his life. Nobody knows about his daughter. And Gilda even doesn’t know her fathers name, to prevent that the secret might be discovered.

When Rigoletto enters the closed world of his home, Verdi abruptly changes the music. The exuberant mood lasts only briefly, however, until Gilda asks about her deceased mother.

Figlia! mio padre! … Deh non parlare al misero – Wixell / Gruberova


Synopsis: Rigoletto has forbidden her to leave the house, only an occasional visit to the church is allowed. Suddenly, the Duke appears unnoticed. He had followed the stranger on her last visit to the church and now wanted to visit her. He listens to the two from a hiding place and is surprised to find that Rigoletto is talking to her and learns that he is her father.

Hear Tito Gobbi and Maria Callas from the great recording of 1955 in a thrilling duet. The second half is simply great, the two voices harmonize perfectly with each other.

Ah veglia, o donna (duet) – Callas / Gobbi



E il sol dell’anima – the love duet

Synopsis: Suddenly Rigoletto hears a noise. The duke manages to hide quickly enough. Rigoletto goes to the door. Sparafucile is standing there. When Rigoletto leaves his daughter, Gilda is stricken with remorse that she has told her father nothing about the young man who persecuted her during her church visits. At this moment the duke appears. They confess their love to each other. The duke masquerades as a student with the name Gualtier Maldé. They hear noise from outside. The Duke has to leave.

Verdi has written the Duke’s declaration of love in a courtly minuet. But Gilda is not a countess, the duke wants to wrap the inexperienced Gilda around his finger. Thus Verdi uses musical means to expose the Duke’s sweet duplicity.

You hear Jussi Björling in this dueat as an irresistible duke. His voice exudes warmth and passion.

E il sol dell’anima…Addio addio Björling / Sayao


In the second video you will hear one of the legendary duets by Tito Schipa and Amelia Galli-Curci. It is simply wonderful how the two voices fit together and sing the great ritardandi.

E il sol dell’anima – Schipa / Galli-Curci

Gilda’s famous aria “Caro nome”

Synopsis: When the duke has to leave her house, Gilda thinks of her lover Gualtier Maldé.

This aria is sung by a girl’s ecstasy of  her first love. It demands vulnerability and beauty instead of external splendour. Gilda is a young woman at the age of 16-18 years. The aria is introduced by two flutes. The singer’s voice must produce the glow and timbre of the flute. The aria has the highest demands. It is peppered with many coloraturas and ornaments and reaches the high C twice.

We hear two interpretations

Edita Gruberova became famous as a coloratura soprano with the role of Queen of the Night. We hear a singer who can penetrate the highest spheres with her voice and master the murderous embellishments.

Caro nome / Gruberova


For many, Callas was an unbeatable Gilda. Her “Caro nome” is great. Her technique is phenomenal, only hear her perfect trills. Her interpretation is dramatic and moving and brings great emotions into the aria.

Caro nome / Callas



The abduction of Gilda

Synopsis: Meanwhile courtiers have appeared under the leadership of Marullo and Ceprano. They encounter Rigoletto. They hide behind masks. Only Marullo reveals himself to Rigoletto. They propose to kidnap the countess Ceprano for fun. Rigoletto happily joins them and gets a mask. Without him noticing, a cloth is tied around his eyes. He must hold the ladder for the kidnapper. While Rigoletto waits for the courtiers to return, they kidnap his supposed lover. When the kidnappers are long gone, Rigoletto tears the mask from his head. Horrified, he must realize that his daughter Gilda has been kidnapped.

Zitti, Zitti








Parmi veder le lagrime – another great aria of the duke

Synopsis: In the duke’s palace. The duke has realized that Gilda had been kidnapped. He he has fallen in love with Gilda and swears revenge.

Even the duke becomes sentimental, his aria “parmi veder le lagrime” is almost tender. But it is the aria of an conceited man: When the duke ponders how Gilda may have called Gualtier’s name during the kidnapping, the orchestra stops for a moment and the duke can sing his alias name slowly and almost tenderly (in the example after 3:05 minutes). Thus this aria forms a field of tension for the singer between real feelings (those of a missed romance) and the self-pity of a self-centered person.

Ella mi fu rapita… Parmi veder le lagrime – Pavarotti

Synopsis: Courtiers appear and triumphantly tell the duke about the kidnapping of Rigoletto’s lover. The duke recognizes that it is his lover. She is carried into the palace. The Duke has her brought into his room.

Rarely has the discrepancy of a character in a Scena ed Aria been drawn in such contrast. Whereas in the Cavatina the Duca sang the pain of loss (“Parmi veder le lagrime”), he is now ready to recklessly satisfy his lust. Thus the Duca is one of the greatest moral villains in Verdi’s operatic literature.

This aria has beautiful lines and has a hight tessitura and even ends with a high D. If the tenor cannot sing this tone, he is usually sung one or two octaves lower.

Listen to this aria in the 1971 recording of Pavarotti and Bonynge, where Pavarotti even sings the high D.

Possente amor mi chiama – Pavarotti


Alfredo Kraus a very elegant tenor and one who also sang the highest notes. His high D is a veritable trumpet.

Possente amor mi chiama – Kraus

Rigolettos appearance – the great aria “Cortigiani vil razza dannata”

Synopsis: Rigoletto appears in the palace, he suspects that Gilda must be there. He is mocked by the courtiers and hides his pain.

With Rigoletto’s appearance, the violins play a dotted motif that seems to imitate the gait of the hunchbacked jester. With the “Laralara” Rigoletto takes up this motif. But the feigned cheerfulness contains the tragic component of the lamento motif of the baroque opera (minor character, falling tone, short pause).

Povero Rigoletto – Wixell


Synopsis: Rigoletto realizes that the courtiers have surrendered his daughter to the count. He accuses them of having sold a father’s holiest possession.

This aria is a stirring indictment. It requires an expressive voice with great volume and magnificent colors. The aria changes from accusation (“vile race”) to supplication (“give her back”) to pathos (“daughters honor”) and flattery. We hear the excitement with quick semiquavers in the orchestra. The lower string instruments (viola, cello and double bass) play eighth notes on the first and third beat, which imitate the excited heartbeat of the rigoletto. The last part of the aria “tutto, tutto al mondo” is one of the most beautiful baritone melodies ever written.

We hear a great Gobbi from the Serafin recording.

Cortigiani, vil razza dannata – Gobbi


The recording with the powerful voice of Tita Ruffo from a 1908 recording is impressing.

Cortigiani, vil razza dannata – Ruffo

Gilda’s lost honor

Synopsis: Gilda appears and has to confess to her father that she has lost her honour. She tells the story of Gualtier Maldé.

Gilda is at a loss for words and the oboe takes on the task of introducing a painful melody. When Gilda sings the melody, one senses from the first note that Gilda is no longer the young, carefree woman of the first act, but that she has been immersed in a painful, sober world as a result of the rape. With tender words, her father tries to comfort her.

Listen to an impressive narration by Maria Callas, which makes the pain of Gilda feel.

Tutte le feste al tempio – Callas


Another interpretation by Joan Sutherland in the Bonynge recording of 1971

Tutte le feste al tempio – Sutherland

The great duet “Si, vendetta, tremenda vendetta”

Synopsis: Guards appear. The Count of Monterone is taken to the dungeon. At his sight, Rigoletto swears revenge on the Duke. In vain Gilda begs her father for forgiveness.

Verdi has written a stirring duet for this scene. The revenge demanding hate song contrasts with Gilda’s mitigating interjections.

Again a great, impressive performance by Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi with a climax at the end that creates goose bumps…

Si, vendetta, tremenda vendetta  –  Callas / Gobbi











The third act is regarded as the musical climax of the opera, in which the contrasts collide and lead to a catastrophe. In particular the quartet “Bella figlia dell’amore”, already admired by contemporaries, and the overwhelming scenery of the inn by the river are highlights of the entire opera literature.

La donna è mobile – maybe the most famous aria at all

Synopsis: Rigoletto leads his daughter Gilda to a shabby inn on a river. Rigoletto and Gilda approach the house and peer through a hole in the wall. Sparafucile sits at a table. Sparafucile’s sister Maddalena has lured the Duke in. The two watch how the Duke enters the room to spend a night with Maddalena.

There is an interesting story to this famous aria. While composing Verdi obviously was aware of how popular this aria would become and what effect it would have on the audience. So he kept this aria secret for a long time. In order to prevent the melody from leaking through before the premiere, the tenor and the orchestra themselves received the aria only in the last hours, shortly before the performance. It became a sensation and everyone hummed it as they left the auditorium.

Again Verdi chose the rhythm of the minuet. The Duke’s personality and intentions remain fixed on the theme of seduction. The aria must be sung lightly and must not degenerate into a vulgar piece. This part usually ends with a brilliant high B, although Verdi composed this one octave lower. But no tenor can afford to end up with the low B, the audience’s judgement would be devastating.

We hear 2 interpretations. Let us start with the incomparable “la donna è mobile” by Pavarotti. With charm, lightness and elegance.

La donna è mobile  –  Pavarotti


Domingo rarely sang the role of the Duke. As a baritonal tenor, the tessitura of Rigoletto was set too high for him. However his interpretation of “la donna è mobile” from the Giulini recording is convincing.

La donna è mobile  –  Domingo



“Bella figlia d’amore” – perhaps the most famous quartet at all

Synopsis: While the Duke is courting Maddalena, Gilda has to realize that the Duke is constantly betraying her

This famous quartet is written in a very unusual way. While quartets usually function with melodic lines, in this quartet only the tenor voice has an actual melody. What is masterful is that the voices are written completely independently, yet interwoven: Maddalena occasionally chirps sixteenth notes, Gilda sings beautiful melodic pieces, and Rigoletto declaims. The effect Verdi creates is revolutionary and stunning.

This also includes the great stage design, which Verdi / Piave describe in detail. Rigoletto and Gilda are outside in the dark and Maddalena and the Duke are inside in the lit up room.

I have included three interpretations, starting with the legendary Caruso recording. A fantastic document from the golden era of opera.

Bella figlia d’amore –  Caruso / Galli-Curci / Perini / de Luca


Bella figlia d’amore  –  Pavarotti / Gruberova / Wixell / Vergara


Bella figlia d’amore  –  di Stefano / Gobbi / Callas / Lazzarini

The great thunderstorm scene – Gilda sacrifices herself

Synopsis: Rigoletto sends his daughter home with the order to flee to Verona disguised with men’s clothes. Rigoletto stays at the house to arrange the trade with Sparafucile. The duke goes up to his room. Meanwhile Gilda has secretly returned in men’s clothes. She eavesdrops on Sparafucile’s conversation with Maddalena. The two discuss the murder plan. Maddalena wants the unknown to be spared. Sparafucile wants the money. They agree that they would kill a stranger and put him in a sack if someone showed up, otherwise the guest would have to die. Gilda recognizes the situation and wants to sacrifice herself. She enters the inn and Sparafucile stabs the unknown.

Another of Verdi’s innovative ideas awaits us in this scene. Hollow uncanny sounding chords sound in the orchestra and an invisible male choir is humming chromatic sequences, creating the sound of a wind blowing through the trees of the river bank.

A thrilling terzetto awaits us in this scene.

Ah piu non ragiono – Gruberova – Furlanetto – Vergara

Rigoletto’s tragic discovery

Synopsis: Rigoletto approaches the inn with a boat to pick up the bag with the duke’s body. He pays Sparafucile and leaves with the boat. When he is about to throw the sack into the river, he suddenly hears the Duke’s voice from afar. He cuts the bag open. To his horror, he has to realize that his daughter’s body is in the bag. Gilda is dying and asks her father for forgiveness. When she dies Rigoletto calls “Ah, it is the curse”.

Verdi never lets his beloved characters die without comforting melodies, so Gilda says goodbye to her father with ethereal sounds.

Lassu in cielo – Gruberova / Wixell


And finally another wonderful dying scene with Gobbi and Callas.

Lassu in cielo  –  Callas / Gobbi



Recording Recommendation

DECCA with Sherill Milnes, Luciano Pavarotti and Joan Sutherland under the direction of Richard Bonynge and the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus


EMI with Tito Gobbi, Maria Callas, and Giuseppe di Stefano under the direction of Tullio Serafin and the Coro e orchestra del teatro alla Scala.




Peter Lutz, opera-inside, the online opera guide to RIGOLETTO by Giuseppe Verdi





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