A Writer's Guide to Rigoletto...
We've asked a series of Scottish writers to bring you their takes on the operas the Company is performing during the 2010/11 Season. Giving us her thoughts on Rigoletto is Glasgow-based writer Louise Welsh, who worked with composer Stuart MacRae on our 2009 5:15 opera, Remembrance Day.
She is the author of three novels: The Cutting Room (2002), The Bullet Trick (2006) and Naming the Bones (March 2010). She has also produced many short stories and articles and has written for radio and theatre. Louise is currently writer in residence for The University of Glasgow and Glasgow School of Art.
Rigoletto – Beauty and the Beasts
Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto is set in a world of princes, courtiers, jesters and exquisite maidens. It’s a fairy-tale kingdom pre-bowdlerisation, where princes do more than kiss the raptured beauty awake; where evil may triumph and goodness go unrewarded.
In true fairy-story style Rigoletto, a jester at the court of the Duke of Mantua, has two special gifts. The first is his ability to make people laugh. The second is his beautiful daughter Gilda who represents all that is good in his life. The jester uses his first gift cruelly, wielding his wit like a weapon. His second treasure, Gilda, he keeps secret from the world, like a miser hoarding his gold. It is Rigoletto who gives his name to the opera, and it is his weakness for viciousness that will lead to the destruction of the person he holds most dear.
Rigoletto can be read as a distorted version of Beauty and the Beast. The opera was adapted from Le Roi s’amuse, a play by Victor Hugo, and like the author’s more famous novel, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, it juxtaposes physical ugliness and loveliness, posing the question of what will happen when a hideous man is entranced by a beauty he cannot hope to keep. Quasimodo, the deaf, hunchbacked bell ringer of Notre-Dame is unfailing in his devotion for the beautiful Esmeralda, and though his love fails to save her, it nevertheless transcends death; they are buried together and their bones mingle into dust. But Beauty and the Beast is a much retold tale, and goodness does not always find its mate.
In the best known version of the story, Beauty is forced to live with the Beast through a debt incurred by her father, when he innocently picks a rose from the Beast’s garden – a rose for a rose. Beauty’s kindness towards the Beast is steadfast and, despite his dreadful looks, she falls in love with him. Her reward is his transformation into a handsome prince. But might it be that she is attracted by his unconventional appearance, his rough claws and shaggy pelt?
His hands were like padded gloves
stitched from smooth black leather
He could swing me off the floor
writes Vicki Feaver in her poem about first love Gorilla* , and Fay Wray casts more than one curiously longing look at her primate captor in the 1933 film King Kong.
The beast in Rigoletto is two formed. Its first aspect is the eponymous hunchbacked jester. The court finds amusement in his misshapen form, but his daughter Gilda, like her mother before her, is moved by love for him. In a conventional telling of the tale her love would be tested until the beast is finally restored to his true, princely self. But although we may question the motives of a father who locks his daughter away, we know Rigoletto cannot marry her. The handsome prince that Gilda falls in love with is not the altered jester, but the dilettante Duke of Mantua, a handsome man determined to exercise his droit de seigneur with as many beautiful women as possible.
When Rigoletto makes cruel fun of Count Ceprano, a father whose daughter the Duke has compromised, the Count lays a curse on the jester and the fairy tale swings into motion. Rigoletto has unwittingly sealed his daughter’s fate.
Two notable contemporary retellings of Beauty and the Beast invest the power in their female protagonists. In Angela Carter’s short story The Courtship of Mr Lyon, it is the heroine who changes into a sleek tiger, no longer willing to hide her own fierce nature. Carol Ann Duffy’s Queen Kong** tells of how she pursued her ‘small, but perfectly formed and gorgeous’ man from her island paradise to New York where,
I picked him, like a chocolate from the top layer
of a box, one Friday night, out of his room
and let him dangle in the air betwen my finger
and my thumb in a teasing, lover’s way . . .
But sweet Gilda lacks claws. Her strength (or is it her weakness) lies in her capacity for sacrifice. For twenty-first century women she is the girl we long to shake some sense into, the inexperienced ingénue entranced by her love of a faithless bad boy. And this is where the fairy-tale analogy falls down, because what we want to shout, as we take her by the shoulders is, ‘forget him, he’ll never change’.
Gilda doesn’t realise the Duke’s true beastly nature until he has stolen her heart. Her devotion endures his violation of her, and her subsequent witnessing of his seduction of another woman. In the end she becomes a martyr to her love. Her father Rigoletto is the accidental agent of her death when Sparafucile, the assassin he has hired to destroy the Duke, murders Gilda in his stead. Gilda dies forgiving both of the men who have brought her life to an undignified and violent end.
When King Kong is finally knocked from his perch atop the Empire State Building a passer by delivers the final verdict: ‘It was beauty killed the beast’. In Rigoletto love also prompts the ultimate sacrifice but here, it is the beasts who destroy beauty.
* Vicki Feaver, The Book of Blood, Cape Poetry (2006)
** Carol Ann Duffy, The World’s Wife, Picador (1999)