Rigoletto, the hunchbacked jester of the Duke of Mantua’s court, is one of the most difficult characters to empathise with in the operatic canon. Vicious, spiteful, bitter and wallowing in the misery of the cuckolded courtiers, his only redeeming feature, and the source of his downfall, is his almost obsessional devotion to his beautiful daughter. Giuseppe Verdi’s opera is full of the themes so beloved of the composer: murder, betrayal, power and obsession and even in comparison with works such as Aida or Otello this is a dark and cruel tale with few characters able to illicit the compassion of the audience.
So why should you spend money and time to associate with such bleak and unpleasant company? Well firstly there’s the semi-Shakespearean storyline which grips from the off. Wickedness and plotting abound, revenge and curses are sworn and of course the fickleness of women – a tangible theme in Shakespeare and Verdi’s work – is at the heart of the story. Then there’s the music. Most lovers of opera would agree that the score for Rigoletto is one of the most powerful and captivating written for the stage. Paralleling the storyline with peaks of swelling emotion and intense moments of intimacy are some of the most familiar and beloved operatic tunes, such as the infamous La Donna Mobile.
In taking on any classic piece of opera you also take on the prejudices and fixed ideas of the audience as to how it should look and sound. But Scottish Opera have a history of reinventing and reinvigorating well-loved and familiar operas without losing their core qualities. And all the evidence suggests that Rigoletto will maintain that reputation. So, although it looks like, for the next few weeks at least that the sun will shine down on Scotland, don’t let that put you off dwelling in the darkness of the human soul for a few hours. And take the opportunity to lose yourself in twists and turns in this grandest of grand operas.
Squeezing us in between rehearsals, makeup and costume fittings, Baritone Eddie Wade who takes the title role in the production found a few minutes to answer some of our questions:
First of all tell us a little about yourself. How did you get involved with the world of opera?
Through amateur Gilbert and Sullivan Society back home in Yorkshire which I used to be dragged along to by my sister. Through that, someone spotted me and said I should get trained and then my teacher said I should go to college. By the time I was eighteen I was auditioning for the Guildhall in London and the rest was history. And things just took off after that, so you could say Gilbert and Sullivan were responsible.
Many people assume they know Rigoletto. What approach have Scottish Opera taken with this production to make their interpretation fresh?
They’ve taken out a lot of the sentimentality. There’s a tradition of making him a little too fond of his daughter, Gilda, and whilst they’ve not made him not fond of her, he’s unable to express his emotion, because he’s not had it himself.
They’ve made him, I think, a slightly darker character who’s harder to get on with and played against the sentimentality of some of the music who, as a figure, can’t show his emotions until it’s too late. I think that’s a very good way to play it as someone who’s a hard man hated by those around him (who, as he’s never been shown love himself) certainly has no way of expressing it with his daughter.
This is played completely against the traditional sentimental approach. Whilst this beautiful music surrounds them, Rigoletto is unable to find a way to hold his daughter or even to stroke her hair until of course it is too late.
As part of your research for the role you went back to the original Victor Hugo play upon which Rigoletto was based. What insights did this give you into the role?
It’s interesting, we’ve updated the story from the time of Francois III but Verdi essentially stuck closely to Hugo’s original play Le roi s’amuse. In fact Hugo himself when he saw Rigoletto said he wished he’d set it to music as it made it much better with quartets and trios singing across each other instead of having just one character speaking at a time.
Verdi’s version is very true to the play although obviously condensed. The only key difference is in the final scene where Rigoletto is left alone with his misery at the end of the opera whereas in the play there are many more characters on the stage whilst Tribolet (Hugo’s hunchback) pleads with them tell him his daughter is still alive.
Most people focus on Rigoletto’s duality. He’s is in many respects a monster but at the same time loves his daughter deeply. How do you see the character?
He is a monster absolutely, but I think the social surroundings he finds himself in make him that monster. He’s very much a Jekyll and Hyde character, he desperately wants to be a good man and throughout the opera he says he’s forced to play the buffoon, he’s forced to do what other people tell him to do, he hates the courtiers, he hates his life but everything that other people can do is denied him including the ability to cry. He desperately wants to be a normal man but the fact that everybody around him treats him as a monster has forced him to assume the role of the monster. The only one who shows him love and affection is his daughter who he’s put her on a pedestal as the last vestige of anything that means anything in the world to him and of course he’s so twisted he can’t communicate that to her which is a tragedy.
Is the social satire regarding the abuse of power which is in the original Hugo play still kept alive in Rigoletto?
It’s not, no. Verdi was, as was Hugo, a victim of the censors of the time, for instance originally Verdi and librettist Francesco Maria Piave wanted the character of the the Duke to be a King but the censors wouldn’t allow a King to be portrayed acting as the character does so he became the Duke of Mantua which was deemed a safe compromise for the censors of the time.
Rigoletto finished its run in June so one final question: what’s next for Eddie Wade?
After this finishes I’m doing more Rigoletto for a company in the south of France and then I’m performing in La Traviatta at the Royal Opera House so I’m sticking with Verdi until the end of the year.