A tragic hero driven by love, but doomed by the need for revenge
With such all-time favorites as "Caro nome" and "La donna è mobile," Giuseppe Verdi's "Rigoletto" is one of the most popular Italian operas and one of Verdi's most accessible. At its premiere in Venice on 11 March 1851, however, the critics' opinions were divided. Some found it brilliant, others immoral, but all agreed that it was totally different from his earlier works. Verdi had definitely rejected the recitative-and-aria combination of the late 18th and early 19th centuries and created a larger-scale unit in which the narrative itself was integrated into the musical flow along with arias, duets and choruses.
Based on Victor Hugo's "Le roi s'amuse," the story is a Romantic potboiler, in which a misshapen "outsider" and his most precious possession – his beautiful daughter – are swept into a maelstrom of tragedy when a libertine duke sets his sights on the girl. In his production for the Zurich Opera, Belgian director Gilbert Deflo and his set designer William Orlandi set the action during Verdi's lifetime rather than in Renaissance Mantua. The sets themselves often blur the distinction between the subjective and the objective, the sphere of power and pleasure represented by the Duke, and the realm of piousness and fatherly love inhabited by the court jester Rigoletto and his daughter Gilda.
As Rigoletto, Leo Nucci is the divo assoluto of this production, which documents one of the most consummate accounts of this role in the early 21st century. Considering the freshness of his interpretation, the wealth of shadings in color and expression, the surprising youthfulness of the timbre, it is hard to believe that Nucci has already sung this role around 400 times in his career! Effortlessly blending their vocal artistry with his are Piotr Beczala as a radiantly singing, irresistibly seductive Duke, and Elena Mosuc as Gilda, whose pure vocal lines and crystalline high register were unanimously praised by the press.
"Rigoletto" is conducted by the great Nello Santi, a welcome guest in Zurich, who made his conducting debut in 1951 with this Verdi opera. With his restrained charisma, his calm gestures, his alert eyes and physical presence, he shapes and controls every note of the music. "This – and this alone – is how Verdi should sound," wrote a prominent Swiss daily after the premiere, thus also establishing the undisputable value of this audiovisual production.