“La donna è mobile, qual piuma al vento” – Woman is fickle like a feather in the wind. That’s the first verse of a broadly popular opera aria. It was performed, among others, by the great tenor Luciano Pavarotti, used in commercials and movies, and sung from Italian balconies during the lockdown. But only a few know the whole history behind Rigoletto – the opera from which this catchy tune comes.

Rigoletto is a masterpiece written by the renowned Italian composer, Giuseppe Verdi, in 1851. Why did he have to rename his characters? Why was the opera severely criticized after its premiere? Read on!

Ruthless mocker and restrictive father – the story of Rigoletto

To understand the controversy around the plot, we’ll provide you with a brief summary of the opera.

The eponymous character is a hunchbacked jester in the court of the Duke of Mantua – a womanizing and canny libertine. Rigoletto’s daily job is to cruelly mock husbands and fathers of ladies seduced by the Duke. One of the helpless men curses both the Duke and his jester in revenge.

Although Rigoletto gloats by pointing out other courtiers’ flaws, he has a pretty dark side himself. He conceals his daughter, Gilda, from the sinful world and lets her visit only church. She isn’t even aware of her father’s slimy profession.

Much as he tries to protect Gilda, she falls in love with a student anyway – in church, of course. However, the charming young man is none other than the deceitful Duke of Mantua. The curse begins to take its toll – Rigoletto, unaware, helps courtiers to abduct his own daughter and bring her to the Duke’s bed.

The jester is ready to take revenge for stealing his daughter’s innocence. He hires a hitman, Sparafucile, to murder the Duke. The assassin’s beautiful sister, Maddalena, lures the Duke and makes him flirt with her when Rigoletto and his devastated daughter can hear everything. Gilda is supposed to leave the town when her father hammers out the deal. However, it’s not the Duke who gets killed… Love loses and malicious fate wins.

Politically incorrect opera – references in Rigoletto

The opera described above isn’t the first version of Rigoletto written by Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave – the librettist. When a Venetian opera house, La Fenice, committed a new piece of work to the Italian composer, he wanted to adapt the scandalous play “Le Roi s’amuse” (The King Amuses Himself) by Victor Hugo. The controversy in the play stemmed from the direct reference to king Francis I of France, depicted as a venal and cynical 16th-century playboy, and led to the ban on staging it in France for five decades.

Piave and Verdi, who admired the timeless subject and the great main character of Hugo’s play, tried hard to obtain permission for making “La Maledizione” (The Curse – the working title of the opera), but censors denied consent. They deemed their work repugnant, immoral, and obscenely trivial.

Undeterred, Verdi was ready to compromise – he agreed to make the story less shocking, relocate the setting to Italy, change the king to a duke, and rename the characters. In the first version, Rigoletto’s name was Triboulet. The French word rigoler, which is the source of the new alias, means to laugh.

Contradictory reviews

Verdi and Piave proved their incredible talents. From the beginning, the opera turned out to be a huge success among viewers. However, critics at first panned the brutality of the plot and considered it too dark and tragic, even repulsive. They also condemned Verdi’s choice of tunes, attacking the combination of frightening scenes and cheerful music.

Luckily, in the second part of the 20th century, Rigoletto was duly appraised and is now regarded as a reflection of Verdi’s musical mastery. Why is Rigoletto worth watching these days? Among dozens of happy end stories produced by pop culture each year, the opera gives us a bitter insight into the darkest parts of human nature. Malicious plot twists, psychologically diverse characters, and a harrowing ending make the story compelling and moving.

We strongly recommend attending Rigoletto and enjoying one of the greatest Italian opera gems of all time!