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  • "Where's my Fool?":Lear Motifs in Rigoletto
  • Barbara Barry (bio)

Stories are like searchlights and spotlights; they brighten up parts of the stage while leaving the rest in darkness.... Stories aid the seekers of comprehension by separating the relevant from the irrelevant, actions from their settings, the plot from its background, and the heroes or the villains at the centre of the plot from the hosts of supernumeraries and dummies. It is the mission of stories to select, and it is in their nature to include through exclusion and to illuminate through casting shadows. It is a grave misunderstanding, and injustice, to blame stories for favoring one part of the stage while neglecting another. Without selection there would be no story.1

In a letter to the poet Antonio Somma on 23 April 1853, Giuseppe Verdi described the powerful impact of William Shakespeare's plays and how he had best realized their dramatic conflict and variety of expression in Rigoletto:

Per l'istessa ragione preferisco Shakespeare a tutti i drammatici, senza eccettuarne i Greci. A me pare che il miglior soggetto in quanto ad effetto che io m'abbia finora posto in musica (non intendo parlare affatto sul merito letterario e poetico) sia Rigoletto. Vi sono posizioni potentissime, varietà, brio, patetico...2

(For the same reason [of variety] I prefer Shakespeare to all other dramatists, not excepting the Greeks. It seems to me that the best subjects I have set to music so far, from the point of view of effect (I don't mean at all to allude to its literary or poetic merit) is Rigoletto. It has very powerful situations, variety, verve, pathos ...)

Verdi identified two aspects of Shakespeare's plays as central to his own dramatic vision: first, Shakespeare's variety of mood and location, such as between the interior of the castle and the exterior of the heath, telescoped the action and demanded the audience's active, imaginative participation much more than the classical unities of time, place, and [End Page 57] action. Second, counterpointing strongly drawn characters tightened the plot's web of treachery and retribution and propelled the action to its climax. Through such vivid characterization and powerful plots, Verdi developed new techniques within existing conventions of nineteenth-century Italian opera, integrating arias and duets into larger and more cohesive units.

In the same letter, Verdi proposed to Somma that they should work together on an opera on King Lear. Far from the first time Verdi had expressed interest in the subject, this was part of a succession of Lear projects that, for a variety of reasons, had either stalled or been allowed to lapse. These forays of engagement and withdrawal from Lear territory raise the question, not so much of what attracted him—that much is evident from his letters—but what prevented him from writing an opera on King Lear.

Perhaps it is possible to date the beginning of his involvement with King Lear to a new translation of Shakespeare, published in Milan in January 1843 by Giulio Carcano, which brought into sharp focus the abrasive confrontation about the abuse of power between Lear and his older daughters and the touching reconciliation with Cordelia near the end of the play before her death. Envisioning the same elements of emotional confrontation and dramatic action that had contributed to the outstanding success of Nabucco the previous year, Verdi raised the possibility of a Lear opera with Count Mocenigo, director of operatic productions at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice, in a letter dated 6 June 1843.

Soon afterwards, though, and even before he had found a librettist and begun work, Verdi started to voice all kinds of concerns, not so much about the plan as about the process. Could he complete the work on time to fulfill his contract to La Fenice? Where would he find suitable singers for the main roles, especially the huge title role, which demanded not only a consummate singer but a powerful actor who could convey the power of kingship and the pathos of Lear's ruined mind? Bringing up potential problems about completion and execution even before he had drawn up a concept sketch of the libretto...


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