MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Rigoletto and Its Curse

The Jester</i.  George Henry Hall (1825-1913)

The Jester, George Henry Hall (1825-1913)


Since today the Met begins its summer schedule of HD broadcast encores with Rigoletto here’s an essay I wrote for San Francisco Opera on Verdi’s rethinking of the elements of melodrama:

Master of the theater that he was, Verdi liked to recall a childhood incident in which real life seemed to trump the most hair-raising effects imagined for the stage.

At the local church in his native village of Roncole, young Verdi found his attention naturally drawn to the music he heard during worship services. One day, while serving as an altar boy, he became so distracted from his duties that the priest celebrating Mass kicked him. The boy went tumbling down the steps of the altar and, humiliated by this abuse, at once muttered a curse that the priest be struck down by lightning. The vindictive wish became reality eight years later when the offending cleric was instantly killed by a thunderbolt.

As an illustration of the apparent effectiveness of a curse—all the more alarming for being unforeseen—this episode might have found itself right at home in Verdi’s operatic universe. The device of the curse (along with its corollary, revenge) is, after all, as commonplace in nineteenth-century opera as the elaborate car chases meant to set the pulse pumping in blockbuster action films.

Curses in one form or another figure prominently throughout Verdi’s operas. Think of the early breakthrough work Nabucco (which actually dramatizes a moment of divine retribution in the form of a lightning bolt), Macbeth, with its collective imprecation against Duncan’s murderer, the gypsy curse of Il Trovatore, or Simon Boccanegra’s thrilling Council Chamber finale.

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Filed under: essay, San Francisco Opera, Verdi

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