January 22, 2004 (Ira Pilgrim)


Anything that is too stupid to be spoken is sung.


I love opera. Why do I love opera? I love opera for the same reason that some folks like bluegrass, some love jazz and some just love noise. My mother liked opera and I was heavily exposed to opera recordings in my childhood (12 inch bakalite disks that traveled at 78 rpm and were scratched by a needle). Mostly, I listened to recordings of the great operatic tenor Enrico Caruso. I would sing along with Caruso, even though I didn't understand the words, and would sing until I got hoarse. I had a book that gave the plots of various operas, but that was about it. The first real opera that I saw was in Paris after WW II was over. I have been to fewer than a dozen operas in my life. However, I have listened to a lot of recorded operas and have CDs of my favorites. I have also watched videos.

I have come to the conclusion that the plots of most operas are ridiculous and bear only a remote resemblance to real life. Even if the original book was realistic, by the time the librettist is through with it, it no longer resembles anything real. This does not prevent it from having exquisite music and expressing emotions remarkably well.

One of my favorite operas is Giuseppe Verdi's Rigoletto. Why do I love it? Not only is the music exquisite, but it is one of the few operas that has melody from beginning to end. Most operas have long periods consisting of words that would be better spoken, set to the most boring music imaginable. Not Rigoletto; it is melody from beginning to end.

The plot is adapted from Victor Hugo's novel Le Roi s'amuse (The King Amuses Himself). The opera is unusual in that every one of the males in it is a mean bastard. The duke's main interest is in bedding women, especially virgins. He is the proverbial male chauvinist who will mount any female who will let him.

Rigoletto is the duke's jester. He is also a mean one, whose only virtues are that he loves his daughter and that he had loved her mother before she died. Since he loves his daughter, he keeps her cloistered in a house with her housekeeper, a woman who will do anything for a buck. She is supposed to make sure that his daughter Gilda (pronounced jeel da) goes nowhere, except to church. As a consequence, Gilda has never had a chance to develop her mind nor acquire any judgment. To use a modern term, she is mentally challenged. She is supposed to be a very pretty virgin, but that takes a good imagination when you are looking at a 200 pound soprano. I have never heard of a real virgin operatic soprano, mezzo-soprano, or contralto.

At the beginning of the opera, Count Monterone is raving mad at the duke for seducing his daughter. The duke slaps him in jail and Monterone lays a "father's curse" on Rigoletto, who had ridiculed him. Rigoletto believes in curses and this one troubles him because, although nobody but the audience is supposed to know it, he is also a father. He broods about it and "la maledizione"(the curse) keeps rearing its ugly head throughout the opera.

Anyhow, the duke knows that virgins go to church, so he goes there too and makes the acquaintance of Rigoletto's daughter Gilda. He tells her that he is a poor student, which sets Gilda's imagination all a twitter. The duke figures that it is just a matter of time before........ Meanwhile the duke's courtiers find out that Rigoletto regularly visits a woman, who they assume is his mistress. They decide to kidnap her and present her to the duke as a present; which they do. When Rigoletto gets to court, first he begs and then he raises hell with the courtiers (a great scene) and informs them that it was his daughter they had kidnapped. Then Gilda, now no longer a virgin, comes out of the duke's bedroom and father and daughter sing a touching duet.

Rigoletto decides to have his revenge on the duke, so he and Gilda go to the house of Sparafucile (pronounced Spa ra fooch eel eh, which means shoot-gun), an assassin who has offered to kill anyone for a price. Rigoletto and Gilda are listening outside of the house through a window, while the duke is trying to make time with Sparafucile's sister Maddalena (pronounced ma da layn a). This, naturally, means a quartet, with the duke singing the major part. Rigoletto contracts with the assassin to kill the duke, but the assassin's sister likes the duke and convinces her brother to kill the first person who comes through the door and present the body to Rigoletto. Gilda has heard all of this and she goes through the door, is stabbed and put into a sack which is presented to Rigoletto. As he is about to dump it into the river, he hears the duke singing. He opens the sack and finds his daughter who, miracle of miracles, is still alike. They sing a duet and then she dies. With the sung words "la maledizione" the opera ends. Only the naive Gilda has died, which is just too bad.

I could write a similar account of most of Giuseppe Verdi's operas. Despite the ridiculous plots, the music and singing can be exquisite.

If you can find a piano and an accompanist, I'll be glad to sing some of the songs for you.

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