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Vengeance Reversed: Verdi's 'Rigoletto'

It's easy to wonder whether actual events in the lives of great composers are directly reflected in their music. Sometimes, people even argue about it. But in the case of personal tragedies early in Giuseppe Verdi's life, the case seems like a slam dunk.

Verdi wrote his first opera (Oberto) while in his late 20s, for Milan's historic opera house, La Scala. The successful 1839 premiere led the company to offer him a contract for three more dramas. It seemed Verdi was on his way to a solid career, but then disaster struck.

Not long before, Verdi had endured the death of his young son. By the spring of 1840, he had also lost both his wife and his second child, an infant daughter. Later that year, his next opera was a flop. Verdi's personal life and career were in tatters, and he considered giving up composing altogether.

Eventually, Verdi made a comeback with his third opera, the smash hit Nabucco. In it, he touched on a dramatic theme that recurred in many operas throughout his long career. That theme is parental love, and in particular the loving yet complex relationship between father and daughter — a relationship that, tragically, Verdi himself never had the chance to fully enjoy.

The father-child relationship crops up in a number of Verdi's finest operas, including Aida, Simon Boccanegra and La Traviata. But the composer never portrayed it more poignantly, or more tragically, than in Rigoletto.

Verdi completed Rigoletto in 1851, and based it on a play by Victor Hugo called Le roi s'amuse. The composer once said it was "perhaps the greatest drama of modern times," and went on to describe its main character as "a creation worthy of Shakespeare."

That character, Triboulet in Hugo's play, became the title character in Verdi's opera. He's a man whose harsh life is warmed only by the unconditional love of his daughter — a young woman who is eventually destroyed as an inadvertent result of Rigoletto's own anger and bitterness.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Verdi's Rigoletto in a production by the Washington National Opera. Baritone Carlos Alvarez stars in the title role, with soprano Lyubov Petrova as Rigoletto's daughter, Gilda.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or view the full archive.

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