Aria recognition in Rigoletto

Posted on Wed, 2014-03-19 16:41 by Opera Explorer

When I saw Verdi's opera Rigoletto for the first time at English National Opera last week, I was pleasantly surprised to hear a familiar tune, as the orchestra struck up opening bars of the aria la donna è mobile (sung by Barry Banks in translation to the words 'Women are changeable'), with its swaggering, flamboyant melody and waltzing 'oom-cha-cha' accompaniment.

I clearly wasn't the only  person to experience this jolt of recognition: there was a palpable murmur of acknowledgement - possibly mixed with a touch of self-congratulation - that rippled through the audience, as several hundred people simultaneously realised they could tap their toes confidently in time to the tune. It is one of Verdi's great stand-alone hits, along with the likes of the brindisi (drinking song) from La traviata and Va, pensiero (‘fly, my thought’) from Nabucco, which is part of WNO's Faith season of opera this summer. I realised that I had probably heard la donna on Classic FM over the years, enjoying its catchy tenor melody, but without understanding what the words meant, or the aria's significance in the story of Rigoletto. In performance, we can start to unravel its many layers.

In isolation, the text of la donna è mobile seemingly begins as a moralising indictment of the fickleness of women, although by the second verse, that facade soon starts to crumble. When set to Verdi's giddy, playful melody, rather than censuring this trait, it turns into a celebration of these intoxicating female qualities for the romantic opportunist. If we consider that the character singing it is an autocratic Duke (the highest authority that the censors allowed Verdi to depict on stage in his setting of Victor Hugo's play Le Roi s'amuse), it is then possible to understand why, in his experience, women have proven so deliciously fickle: this is the song of a man who is revelling in the amorous benefits of limitless power and privilege. In Christopher Alden's production, the Duke flirts with all the women around him as he sings the words, seemingly unaware of the irony that his own heart may be the most changeable of all. Added to this cocktail of hypocrisy, innuendo, and seduction, Verdi casts one last dramatic masterstroke: the whole debacle is observed from the sidelines by the heartbroken Gilda, daughter of the Duke's court jester (the 'rigoletto'), who until this moment, believes that the Duke is faithful to her alone. The audience's sympathies lie solely with the heroine at this point, thereby transforming this jovial serenade to pleasure into the cruel soundtrack of Gilda's despair. With every flourish of the melody, the Duke's spirits soar, while in contrary motion, Gilda's hopes plummet, leading her to the fatal resolve which brings about her death. Verdi couldn't have written a more blithely inconsiderate aria for the Duke if he'd tried; and tellingly, it is this aria, heard from offstage at the very end of the opera, that comes back to haunt Rigoletto, aptly forming the soundtrack to his despair too. Catchy though the melody may be, its real power lies in its dramatic porosity, which causes this simple tune to act as a kind of emotional cipher, signifying something completely different to everyone on stage.

So this summer, when the iconic opening strains of Va, pensiero are intoned by the WNO chorus, around half-way into Verdi's opera Nabucco, hopefully audiences will experience this same pleasure of recognition, almost like greeting an old friend, alongside the revelatory discovery of its infinite depth in performance. As with la donna, hearing an aria in its full context can furnish a familiar, seemingly innocuous melody with unexpected dimensions, plunging the contours of its melody into dramatic relief.  It would seem that it's not just women or Dukes who are changeable: words and music are the most gloriously fickle of all!

Sophie Rashbrook