So…You Hate Your Boss? What Else Is New?
Pity the poor Rigoletto and his fellow-courtiers under the domination of the Duke of Mantua in Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto—an opera that speaks to anyone who has ever worked for a corrupt superior or felt frustrated by apparent immorality in government. The beauty of Verdi’s music intensifies the pathos, horror, and revulsion engendered by a very dark story couched in the moral hazards that you and I face even now.
This 19th-century work poses a question that is more relevant than ever today: Does moral character really matter in a boss or political leader? Or is executive competence all that counts? Verdi’s position is clear. In the fictionalized dukedom of Mantua where Rigoletto takes place, the head honcho’s personal immorality ruins the lives of those around him while he enjoys his libertinism with impunity. He’s surrounded by sycophants who feel they have no choice but to go along to get along. As characters in a drama, the duke’s courtiers are vivid and surprisingly modern. Perhaps you’ll see people you know—perhaps even yourself—in this gallery of rogues from Rigoletto:
Rigoletto is a single father whose difficult life suggests the trendy term “intersectionality”: He works hard to provide a safe home for himself and his daughter, while as an employee with a disability, he faces discrimination every day in a hostile working environment. As a dad he is overprotective; his efforts to safeguard his daughter make her less safe, not more so. In serving as court jester for a man he hates, Rigoletto abets the duke’s bad behavior. The ugliness of his physical deformity can be seen to reflect this moral compromise.
Gilda, Rigoletto’s overprotected daughter, seems at first blush to be radiantly lovely and perfectly innocent. After glimpsing reality, she chooses ignorance, willfully blinding herself to the harsh truths of power and betrayal. Sacrificing her own life to save the duke can be seen as an act of love, but it makes her his facilitator, forcing us to ask ourselves: If we stand by and do nothing about the wrongdoing of others, are we morally culpable as well?
The Duke of Mantua is a figure of utter hypocrisy and moral dissolution inside a package of power, swagger, and sex appeal. His anthemic aria, “La donna è mobile”—nominally about women’s fickleness—actually reflects his own inconstancy. He is oblivious of the suffering of others.
Sparafucile is a Mephistophelian figure of menace who dwells in shadows—a stock operatic character whose baseness is reflected in his bass voice. He makes his living by feeding off the greed and lust of others, operating like a modern-day hitman. The aria in which he introduces himself culminates in a famous, long-held note that is one of the lowest in the operatic literature.
Maddalena is Sparafucile’s sister and quite literally his partner in crime; she works as his “man-bait” to lure potential victims to their roadside inn and then entrap them. In the famous Act III quartet “Bella figlia dell’amore,” with the four principals singing dazzlingly braided vocal lines reflecting their contrasting desires, the “beautiful child of love” addressed by the duke is not Gilda, but Maddalena.
Michael Clive is a cultural reporter living in the Litchfield Hills of Connecticut. He is program annotator for Pacific Symphony and Louisiana Philharmonic, and editor-in-chief for The Santa Fe Opera.