Rigoletto in a Time of War

In a time of crisis and war, I often feel compelled to blog about the stories making headlines. I’ve written several posts about the Freedom Convoy, whose fifteen minutes are now up. The Ukraine war will be with us for as long as it takes the Russians to pound Ukrainian cities into submission or the economic sanctions to bring Putin’s regime to its knees. Either may take quite some time.

The arts are politicized as well, with the cancelling of Russian artists like Valery Ghergiev and Anna Netrebko who have been supportive of Putin. I will be watching the Metropolitan Opera broadcast of Turandot in May, in which the Ukrainian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska will be replacing Netrebko.

I watched the Met’s broadcast of Verdi’s Rigoletto two weeks ago – an encore presentation because Ontario cinemas were closed when it was originally broadcast on January 29. Soloists Quinn Kelsey (Rigoletto), Rosa Feola (his daughter Gilda), and Piotr Beczala (the Duke of Mantua) were all superb.

A Fool in Many Ways

The question that comes to mind in contemplating a tragedy is whether the protagonist made mistakes and thus deserves the consequences he brought down on himself and others. One can’t avoid the comparison to Putin, who is now considered to have made three key mistakes: underestimating the motivation and strength of Ukrainian resistance to “mother Russia”, overestimating the capability of the Russian military, and underestimating the cohesion and resolve of the NATO Alliance.

In my opinion, Rigoletto made three critical mistakes. As court jester, he pushes his luck and antagonizes powerful people. Even the Duke says, “You always take a joke too far. The wrath you provoke could rebound upon you.” Rigoletto’s reply is hubristic “Who could harm me? No one dare touch a favourite of the Duke.” The nobles quickly exact “revenge on the fool” by kidnapping his beloved and cloistered daughter Gilda, whom they think is his mistress, and taking her to the palace for an assignation with the lecherous Duke.

Rigoletto’s second mistake is in keeping his adult daughter Gilda, who has recently returned – apparently from school – cloistered in their house. Rigoletto compounds the problem by keeping her ignorant of her family background. Rigoletto is fearful that the nobles he has offended would find “the dishonouring of a jester’s daughter would be cause for laughter.”

Ironically the duke has seen the daughter in the only place she goes outside the home – church on Sunday. She is attracted to him, and he resolves to make her another conquest.

With the intervention of the nobles who kidnap Gilda, the assignation occurs. Gilda recounts it to her father as “the shame,” but she has fallen in love with the Duke. Rigoletto tries to dissuade her, even bringing her to watch another of the Duke’s assignations. Still, she remains in love.

Opera has many characters, for example Baron Scarpia in Tosca, who are clearly sexual predators. The Duke, however, is a libertine, as he makes clear in his famous “Questa o quella” aria at the outset: “And if one woman pleases me today, tomorrow, like as not, another will. Fidelity – that tyrant of the heart – we shun like pestilence.” Despite his licentious, women are attracted to him, including the virginal Gilda and the worldly Maddalena. Is it complicity or false consciousness on their part, as the MeToo movement might argue? Or is it that he is charismatic, seductive with his words, and sexually experienced? Is he a Harvey Weinstein or a Frank Sinatra? Many productions of Rigoletto portray him as the latter, for example the Met’s previous one, set in 1950s Las Vegas, with the Duke as a tuxedoed leader of a Ratpack. In this production, Beczala projects charismatic sex appeal.

Rigoletto’s third mistake is seeking vengeance against the Duke for shaming – perhaps “ruining” is a better word – Gilda. He sings “Yes, revenge, terrible revenge is all that my heart desires.” But Gilda replies, “Forgive him; and then we too may hear the voice of pardon from Heaven.” Rigoletto, of course, does not (“He is Crime; I am Punishment.”) The tragedy is completed when Gilda deliberately interposes herself between the assassin Rigoletto hires and the Duke, and takes the dagger.

The Three Lessons

The tragedy of Rigoletto has three clear lessons:

  • Don’t unnecessarily antagonize and provoke powerful people,
  • Don’t try to control your adult children, especially their sexuality, and
  • Don’t seek revenge without thinking carefully about the consequences.

How these lessons might apply to the situation in Ukraine is an exercise for the reader.


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