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Verdi's Rigoletto offended censors in Venice in 1850 because of its portrayal of immoral behavior among royalty. Listen to an excerpt?

Giuseppe Verdi's Rigoletto

Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi signs a contract in April 1850 to write a new work for the 1850-'51 season of Venice's La Fenice theater. Among the proposed subjects is an adaptation of Victor Hugo's play, Le Roi s'amuse, which tells the dark story of a lecherous king, Francis I, his hunchbacked jester, Tribolet, and the jester's innocent daughter, who is raped by the king

The Minister of Public Works in Paris had shut down Le Roi s'amuse after a single performance in 1832 because of the curses and insults in the text, the portrayal of royalty as corrupt, and the offensiveness of the final scene, in which Tribolet carries the body of his daughter in a sack, thinking it is the king, whom he has hired an assassin to kill. Verdi, however, sees great operatic potential in the play, and writes from his home in Busetto to his librettist Francesco Piave, in May 1850, encouraging him to "turn Venice upside down to make the censors permit this subject." Piave suggests that all will go well.

This proves not to be the case, as many different authorities, including the police and the official censor, must be satisfied. The first objections come from the director of La Fenice, who finds the story immoral. Piave defends the libretto and Verdi writes to explain work is already under way, and that if forced to take another subject because of censorship, he could not write a satisfactory opera.

The Venice police request a copy of the libretto, which Verdi has sent at once, but he instructs Piave to make no "deals that will lead to changes in the characters, the plot, or the dramatic situation." He also demands that the librettist resolve the problem promptly.

Only a few days later, La Fenice writes Verdi to say that the opera, now titled La maledizione (The Curse,) has been prohibited by the office of public order, cited by the Military Governor of Venice as a "deplorable," "repugnant," "obscene triviality." The final line of the governor's letter warns La Fenice "not to insist further on this matter."

Verdi is enraged, blaming Piave for false assurances that the opera would be approved. He writes La Fenice to discuss alternatives, none attractive and ends his letter "the damage and the unhappiness resulting from this veto are so great that I have no words to describe them."

Piave, however, does not give up, and works with officials from the theater to revise the story. By December 11, the proposed premiere only a few months off, they send a version to Verdi which the censors have approved, despite the earlier edict. The title and setting are now changed, the king has been demoted to a duke, the sex and other corrupt behavior significantly softened.

Verdi finds the revision largely unacceptable: the curse which sets off the drama now has no motive; Triboletto, the jester, has been de-hunched and is no longer ugly. And the sack in which he unknowingly drags the body of his beloved daughter is eliminated. Verdi writes, "What difference did the sack make to the police? Are they afraid of the effect it has? ... If you take away the sack, it is unlikely that Triboletto would talk for half an hour to a corpse, without having a flash of lightning show him that it is his daughter." The tragic climax of the opera is thus rendered absurd.

La Fenice is now in crisis; the new season depends on a new opera by Verdi. Piave and others meet the censors and take up Verdi's demands, searching for a compromise. On December 23, they write Verdi that his main requests can be granted and "there will be no problem about the sack." A new title for the opera, Rigoletto, is proposed. The police approve the work, asking only for the change of a few names. On January 26, Piave writes to Verdi, "At last yesterday at three in the afternoon our Rigoletto reached the directors safe and sound, with no broken bones and no amputation."

Verdi arrives in Venice with the completed score on February 19, with three weeks to rehearse Rigoletto, which is expected to save an otherwise lackluster season at La Fenice. It premieres on March 11, 1851, to sell-out crowds and mixed reviews, many critics offended by the subject. Despite this, and a heavily cut version in Rome which fails, the opera soon enters the repertoire of opera companies in Italy and around the world. Now considered one of Verdi's greatest works, it is one of the most performed operas of all time.


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