Stage Director Christina Jensen is sharing her thoughts about Rigoletto
In the distance a woman screams. The city's polished marble buildings reflect a blinding red-orange color as flames greedily lick the sides, crack the stone, and tumble the monuments into rubble. The fire whips through the city streets, razing homes, claiming lives, and quickly transforming a once arrogant empire into an ancient civilization. On top of a high building, far away from the center of the danger, a discordant voice sings out the tragic tale of another fallen city. Or so legend will have us believe.
The singer – or sometimes labelled, the fiddler – is none other than Emperor Nero, one of our modern heroes for cruelty, tyranny, matricide, homicide, infanticide, grotesque hedonism, madness, and a slew of other crimes against humanity. There are few cultures whose wine-soaked orgies lead to such infamous violence as many believe the Ancient Roman culture to epitomize. And Emperor Nero is the Bacchanalian King of such animalistic behavior.
The drunken culture that seeped into the fall of the Roman empire greatly resembles the hedonistic setting of Verdi's Rigoletto. The Duke rules with a heavy hand over a court of social climbing, fawning, oversexed, and merciless commoners wrapped up in the veils of courtly power. Influential men come easily into power with the whim of the ruler. They just as quickly fall out of favor should the Duke's mood change or – heaven forbid – they cross him in any way. Count Monterone make the fatal mistake of publicly complaining about the violent rape of his daughter at the Duke's hands. The Count is quickly stripped of his status, made a public spectacle of scorn and derision, and is cast into prison. Such behavior is more than reminiscent of the great Roman godlike Caesar, Emperor Nero. In both the courts, everyone breathed a sigh of relief when the ruler was happy and quaked in their shoes when he was displeased.
However, there were a few special individuals, who maintained an almost sacred-like position in the court. In Verdi's opera, Rigoletto enjoys a protected status. He says he doesn't fear the Duke's emotional tirades. He gives the Duke a sense of continual comedy, feeding the fire of the Duke's own gross cruelty. The Duke cannot and will not live without Rigoletto. Similarly, Nero favored Spiculus, a famous gladiator, who fought many times in the circuses the Emperor sponsored for the amusement of his subjects. According to several historical sites, Nero obscenely awarded riches and prestige to Spiculus when he won gladiatorial games. The sties go on to say that when the cowardly Emperor knew that death was imminent, he sent for Spiculus to kill him. The comparison between these two court buffoons differs in the deaths of their masters. Spiculus was not available to kill Nero. The Duke didn't realize he was the intended victim of Rigoletto's revenge. It is interesting to note that the protected ones are equated with deadly thoughts for their patrons.
Beneath these obvious comparison of cultures lies a more subversive similarity between Nero and the Duke. Whether Nero was mentally unbalanced or simply possessed an artistic soul that abhorred his imperial duties, Nero was supposedly happiest when he was singing or writing poetry. He dramatically changed from a violent, irrational, dictator to a sensitive, insecure, and passionate artist. Such a shift in personality we also see in the Duke. His first aria “Questa o Quello” is performed in public, with several members of his court present. In this piece, the Duke retains his harsh devilish personification, vowing a personal vendetta against monogamy and the power of love itself. But, when he is alone, his tone completely changes. In his aria at the beginning of Act III, he says, referring to Gilda, “and where now can be that angel beloved? She who first was able to in this heart waken the flame of constant affection? She, so pure, and at whose innocent gaze I feel myself now and then impelled towards virtue.” This is a different man; this is a window into the gentle soul of the tyrant.
The Duke, Rigoletto, and the culture they establish intoxicate the courtiers just as quickly and just as dangerously as a strong wine. They are all drunk on power and hell-bent on the execution of every worldly pleasure. No one is safe from rape, pillaging, prison, or death. The very balance of life hangs in the hands of a power-hungry tyrant who buries an empathetic soul, allowing it to surface only in brief moments of artistic exuberance. Sound like an ancient Roman Emperor we all love to hate? Let the games begin!