A review of the UK premiere of Verdi’s Rigoletto

Rigoletto 1853

Title page of the libretto in English translation, sold at Covent Garden in 1853 – Osborne, Rigoletto

“When Rigoletto was first produced in London, at Covent Garden on May 14, 1853, the conductor was Michael Costa and the principals were Angiolina Bosia (Gilda), Giovanni Mario (Duke of Mantua) and Giorgio Ronconi (Rigoletto), all of whom were admired by the critics, though the opera was not. It was, however, an instant success with that real and final arbiter, the public, and has seldom since been long away from the Covent Garden stage.”

Charles Osborne, Rigoletto

Rigoletto is, perhaps, my favourite opera. So, when I came across this review of its UK premiere, I was fascinated by the response of the writer to the performance. My commentary is unnecessary; read it for yourself.

From The Morning Chronicle, May 16, 1853


Verdi’s new — new in every sense — opera of Rigoletto was produced on Saturday evening, with such a degree of success as promises the work a steady popularity. The first scene sufficed to show that, somehow or other, Verdi had in a great measure ceased to be Verdi. With the exception of one opening movement, in which brass is used, and very effectively, Verdi has stiIled his trombones and hushed his choral unisons. He has even un-Italianicised the forms of his melodies, and modelled them upon the piquant and quaintly-rhythmed airs and concerted pieces which form the staple of the modern minor French opera. You might almost imagine, indeed, that you were listening to Auber, or Herold, or Adolphe Adam. Furthermore, the music is kept in an equable piano, and a series of subdued and graceful rather than grandiose style imparted to it — the whole suggesting the curious versatility of the composer who, finding himself sinking amid his treatment of Italian phrases, has grasped, and with success, at the features and the spirit of quite another school of art.

The libretto of Rigoletto turns out to be no other than the story of or old persecuted friend Le Roi s’Amuse, which was played at the Theatre Français one night in November, 1832, and peremptorily stopped by a Governmrnt dictum fulminated the next morning. What were the exact reasons for this exercise of authority M. Victor Hugo could never understand. Great were the efforts to have the ban suspended — voluminous was the correspondence, repeated the interviews which passed between the authorities of dramatic police and those of the Theatre Français. The powers which were, however, proved themselves deaf to the voices of the theatrical and literary charmers, and Le Roi s’Amuse has a share only in the printed dramatic literature of France.

Yet, after all, the cause of this sternness was perhaps not so far to look for. The king who amuses himself is Francis I., and he does so at the expense of morality, not to say decency. The whole tone of the play indicates, indeed, the strong opinions of the author in respect to royalty and aristocracy. Through the mouth of Francis’s famous jester Triboulet — the Rigoletto of the opera — he launches the fiercest sarcasms at courts and seigneuries, supporting the satire by giving it plenty of —- to say the Ieast — pungent dramatic grounds to go upon ; and finally concluding with a catastrophe which is at once painful and ineffective. These qualities, it may be presumed, were amongst those winch influenced the government of Louis Philippe in its stern prohibition of Le Roi s’Amuse. It is right to add, however, that the objections to the play only apply in a very modified degree to the opera ; merely the strong dramatic points of the original are given, to the exclusion, of course, of many of the suggestive scenes, and all of what might be considered as objectionable dialogue. The conclusion, indeed, remains unavoidably as in the drame, and the repulsive nature of the catastrophe seems to have reacted upon the mind of the composer, for the last scenes are, musically, the weakest in the work.

The main outline of the story runs as follows :—The Duke of Mantua (Sig. Mario), the king of the original play, blase of the attractions of the fine ladies of the Court, is amusing himself by carrying on what seems a vain pursuit of an unknown young girl, whom he has traced in disguise from the church which she frequents to an humble dwelling, situated, however, just opposite to the hotel of a great court lady. All this the monarch communicates to one of his chosen courtiers at a gay fête, in the midst of which Rigoletto (Signor Ronconi), in his magnificent jester’s dress, is dealing about his jibes, very much to the discomfiture of the dissipated set around him, and advising the monarch to clear his way to the good graces of a certain Countess of Ceprano  by chopping off her husband’s head, and sending her father, the Count Monterone (Polonini), to the bastille. Suddenly a shade is flung over the revelry by the appearance of the injured father of this said Countess. His daughter has been forced into a marriage with a mean creature of the Duke’s, and he comes with a demand for justice, when he is unceremoniously thrust aside by Riqoletto, who, mounting upon a table, makes a mock speech, which excites the old man, in a  furious burst of passion, to utter his solemn curse on the head of the jester, ere he is dragged away to the Bastille. The next scene is a street and night one. On one side rises the palace of the disgraced Countess, on the other the humble dwelling of Rigoletto. The latter enters, melancholy and distrait. He has thrown off his fool’s dress, and wears a sombre costume. The curse of the father has sunk into his heart, and he is brooding over it, when he is accosted by a bravo, Sparafucile (Signor Tagliafico), who proffers his services in the assassinating line to Rigoletto — or any gentleman who may require his aid — and withdraws, leaving he jester to turn with a heavy heart into the yard of his dwelling, down to which his daughter, Gilda (MIIe. Bosio), whom he keeps, or thinks he keeps, secret from the world, springs as she hears his voice. Their conversation is broken by footsteps at the court-yard door, which the Duke, in disguise, slips by unperceived, whilst the father is departing for the Court to resume his drearily brilliant functions ; and he immediately throws himself at the feet of Gilda, avowing himself a poor student, and professing his love, which Gilda, who is of a facile disposition, is not slow to accept, when the sound of many feet outside the wall breaks off the interview — the Duke retreating, and a group of masked courtiers appearing, bent upon carrying off the girl, whom they believe to be Rigoletto’s mistress. Nor is their design interrupted even by the return of Rigoletto himself. They persuade him that they are going to carry off the Countess of Ceprano, who lives opposite, that he must join them, and masked and blindfolded hold the ladder. To this the jester agrees, and is led .to his own house instead of the Countess’s, thus becoming the unwilling instrument in the abduction of his own daughter, who carried away, while Rigoletto is left to tear off the bandage and find out the first operation of the curse of Monterone.

In the second act the courtiers crowd around the Duke, telling him of their last night’s exploit, and informing him that Rigoletto’s mistress is in the next room. As the Duke rushes into it, Rigoletto, in his clown’s dress, but pale and haggard, bursts through the crowd, overwhelming it with invective, proclaiming that the girl carried away was his daughter, not his mistress, and, alternately struggling and pleading upon his knees with the courtiers, is at the climax of his agony, when Gilda rushes into his arms, and his persecutors, cowering before the fierceness of the father’s love, withdraw, while Gilda telIs the story of her lover in the church, and Rigoletto vows vengeance upon the Duke.

In the third act we have another moonlit scene. To the left a dilapidated tavern, the interior of which can be seen through the partially-fallen walls, and which is occupied by the bravo and his sister Magdalen (Mdlle. Didiee) a species of BalIadine young lady, useful for entrapping customers for her brother, one of whom turns out to be no less than the Duke, who, in disguise, makes coarse love to Magdalen, while Rigoletto, on the outside, causes his daughter to gaze through the broken wall, and observe the conduct of the man, whom after all, however, she cannot help loving. Dismissing her then to assume man’s clothes for a journey he meditates, Rigoletto concerts with the bravo, who joins him in the street, the murder of his customer, agreeing to put the body in a sack, and allow Rigoletto to fling it into the river. The night turning out tempestuous, and the disguised Duke turning out tipsy, he is easily persuaded to lie down arid go to sleep, when Sparafucile proceeds to sharpen his knife for his slaughter — a catastrophe, however, which is averted by Magdalen’s ingenious proposal to murder the first stranger who may come, and pass off his body in the sack for that of the quasi captain. This arrangement is overheard by Gilda, who, dressed in man’s clothes, has been forced back by her unreasonable love to catch one more look at the false Duke, and who conceives the extraordinary idea of sacrificing herself to save the man who has ruined her, and accordingly entering the house immediately meets her fate. The issue may be anticipated. Rigoletto returns, receives the sack with its horrible contents, and as he is gloating over it in a paroxysm of triumphant revenge, is suddenly appalled at catching the half-drunken voice of the Duke, who has got tired of his lodgings and is making the best of his way home — singing what seems a convivial song — while the horror-struck jester the next moment makes the appalling discovery that he has been exulting over the body of his daughter. The death of the buffoon by his own hand terminates this combination of mingled extravagance and dismal ingenuity, by an ultimatum worthy of what led up to it and of the means by which Le Duc s’amuse.

The general character of the music we have characterised as piquant, very nicely and clearly instrumented, full of melody, containing passages of considerable dramatic power. but we have to add that it does not aspire to art of a high class, and that it is weakened and flattened by a certain monotony of treatment and want of variety of co!our. The grace of the phrasing is very satisfactory to the ear, but we cannot help at the same time longing for some change in character, some decided break in style. There is no overture, but a few bars in a minor key of wailing music, broken on the rising of the curtain by merry festal strains, and a by gay and graceful air, “Questa o quella,” delightfully sung by Mario, who was in high voice, and experienced on his entrance in his splendid Titian dress an uproarious greeting. The music all through this scene is very gay, and yet quiet and unpretending, until Rigoletto introduces a new element by his brusque singing and energetic drollery of voice and manner. A chorus, “Tutto e gioia,” is not new, but it is very pleasing, and Rigoletto’s mock speech was declaimed by Ronconi in a fine vein of musical burlesque, which was admirably changed into an expression of horror, as the curse of the derided and broken-down man fell upon his head. Rigoletto’s next point is the despairing energy in which, before his own house, he pours forth his hatred to the Court before whom he jokes, in a solo, which is followed by a pathetic duet with his daughter, which was tenderly sung by Mlle. Bosio, and given with great pathos by Ronconi ; the scene ending with a second duo, in which Rigoletto commends his daughter to a servant, and which received a well-merited encore. The air in which Mario declares his love, “ Uscire ! Adesso ! ” was given, in our opinion, much too loudly. Signor Mario, indeed, appears to have lately taken to straining his voice when there is no occasion for it ; as in the present instance, when, in a love song, which one would think ought to be softly murmured into the object’s ears, Mario sung nearly as loudly as Tamberlik in the most energetic of his passages. We regret this fault of judgment. Mario has only to open his lips for the voice of the most consummate sweetness ever heard by man to come forth — a voice which surely has no need to be forced to the power, in the highest ranges, of a differently set and more vigorously constituted organ. There were passages which Signor Mario gave on Saturday evening with the full bloom and freshness of his voice, and the unmingled enthusiasm of the audience ought to have told him how clearly he was then in the right path. The concerted music, when the courtiers enter upon their nocturnal adventure, is very quaint, and the chorus sung while the girl is being carried away is one of the most dramatic ” bits ” in the composition.

The second act is mainly taken up with the magnificent acting and singing of Ronconi, and, rushing wildly about the apartments, searches for some symbol of his lost daughter, his eyes glaring, and his features working in a wonderful display if passion, the climax of which is the absolute shriek with which he lets out the secret ” Io vo’ mia figlia,” and then, his powers giving way, kneels abjectly, and weeping, at the feet of his despised tormentors. The fury of the joy with which the jester holds Gilda to his breast when she rushes forth is another great phase of this magnificent piece of acting, which ends in a finely declaimed denunciation of revenge against the Duke. The sensation produced by this act was immense. Ronconi was unprecedentedly grand, and the house was one peal of acclamation as he appeared before the drop scene.

The third act is musically inferior to the other two. Signor Mario has a sort of bacchanalian song in the bravo’s cottage, which is not good, although it was demanded a second time. The encore was better won in a quartet, or rather a species of double duet, very ingeniously arranged into a fugal character, and which was admirably sung by Mario and Mlle. Didiee inside the tavern, and Ronconi and Mlle. Bosio outside. This very masterly piece of composition is not less remarkable for melody than for skill of harmony and voicing. Notwithstanding the great interference with the action it was re-demanded and repeated from the beginning. After this point, however, the decline in the music is palpable. Magdalen has a few notes of quaint melody ; but the closing bars allotted to Rigoletto, although delivered with vast energy by the artist, contain no crowning musical point, while the physical climax is not of a nature to support the musical failure.

Rigoletto has been got up with great splendour. The fete in the first scene is very brilliant, and the grouping and movements do Mr. Harris much credit. The scenes themselves at once gave token of Mr. Beverly’s hand and eye. The second of the first act is finely Italian, both in atmosphere and objects, with its small red-tiled balconied house, faced by a proud porticoed neighbour, with pillars of the purest Doric we ever saw upon a stage, and in the silvery, not golden, moonlight of the background, the graceful form of a campanile. The brilliant Renaissance hall was also excellent, and so in its way vas the last scene — the dilapidated tavern, and, behind, the river; and, still behind, the tall white houses, seen fitful!y in the lightning flashes. Mr. Beverley has taken his position, and shown his peculiar arid exceptional talents at once.

The opera will be repeated to-morrow.


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