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Conflicting Emotions, Beautiful Harmonies: Exploring Rigoletto’s Famous Quartet

by Lily Kass, PhD

Rigoletto is an opera all about opposites. The young woman Gilda is considered beautiful by society, while her father, Rigoletto, has a hunchback which others consider ugly. The Duke and his court are wealthy and powerful, while Gilda and Rigoletto have few material possessions, and Rigoletto needs to work hard for the Duke in the menial position of a court jester. Sometimes, contradictions even exist within a single character: Rigoletto tries to be a good father to Gilda by shielding her from the evils of the world, but her lack of knowledge about how the world works leads to her ultimate downfall. Maddalena helps her brother Sparafucile make a living by luring people to their deaths, but she doesn’t particularly like her job. The Duke frequently sings about how he doesn’t care which woman he is with, as long as he is with someone, but when he thinks that Gilda has been taken from him, he seems genuinely upset and like he might be truly in love with her.

What happens when all of these contradictions come together? There is an important moment in the opera during which these four characters, Gilda, Rigoletto, Maddalena, and the Duke, come together and express their individual perspectives at the same time. This moment, at the start of the opera’s third and final act, is often referred to simply as the “Rigoletto quartet.”

The physical setting of the quartet is interesting because although the characters are all on stage together, they are in two different locations. The Duke and Maddalena are together inside a tavern while Rigoletto and Gilda stand outside looking in through a crack in the wall. Inside the tavern, the Duke is trying to seduce Maddalena, while outside Gilda looks on with horror: she still loves the Duke and she had thought he loved her too.

Here is a recording of the quartet in English. When do you hear/understand the words? Whose words are easiest to understand?

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All four characters in this quartet are full of emotion, and all four singers are singing with intensity. However, because everything is happening simultaneously after the first few lines in the quartet, it is almost impossible to make out most of the words. The same would be true if an Italian-speaker heard the quartet in the original Italian. The fact that we cannot understand the words doesn’t mean that we don’t understand the quartet, however. We can still get the gist of what each character is saying because of the music.

The Duke is easiest to hear because he begins the quartet and sings the melody throughout. The whole quartet revolves around him, just like he thinks the whole world should revolve around him. In the tragedy of Rigoletto, the Duke seems to escape his fate – he does bad things, and he does not get punished. In the same way, the Duke’s melody happily winds its way through the intense emotions of the other characters in this quartet. The Duke’s melody is dancelike and contains little flourishes that makes it seem light and airy. The repetition in this melody makes it memorable, while its occasional and unexpected high notes are so thrilling that they bring the quartet to momentary standstills.

The Duke is singing the words:

Bella figlia dell’amore,
schiavo son dei vezzi tuoi;
con un detto sol tu puoi
le mie pene consolar.
Vieni e senti del mio core
il frequente palpitar.

Beautiful daughter of love
I am a slave to your ways
With only a word you can
Console my pain.
Come and listen to my heart's
Frequent palpitations

In response to the Duke’s plea, Maddalena does not just fall into his embrace. Instead, she laughs! We can hear this in the music even if we can’t hear the words. She sings very short staccato notes with one note per syllable of text, making it sound very wordy and chirpy.

Her words match her tone of voice as she calls the Duke out on what he is really doing.

Ah! ah! rido ben di core,
che tai baie costan poco
Quanto valga il vostro gioco,
mel credete, so apprezzar.

Ha! Ha! I laugh a lot in my heart,
This mockery is cheap
How much your game is worth,
Believe me, I know how to calculate

While Maddalena laughs, Gilda cries. We hear this in her long high notes followed by downward phrases that sound like sobbing or sighing.

Gilda sings of her pain at hearing the Duke act towards Maddalena as he had towards her. She thought she was the only one to whom the Duke would speak in this way.

Ah, così parlar d'amore
a me l'infame ho udito!
Infelice cor tradito,
per angoscia non scoppiar.

Ah, these words of love
I heard from the traitor!
Unhappy betrayed heart,
Don't burst from anguish.

It is hardest to hear and understand Rigoletto because he sings the lowest part in this quartet, and many of his notes are long and drawn out, so that our attention is quickly diverted elsewhere. Rigoletto’s voice rumbles beneath everyone else, overflowing with discontent. His biggest aim is for his daughter to stop crying, and he will do whatever it takes to stop her crying – even if it means killing the Duke. Rigoletto’s part is marked “cupo” in some passages. “Cupo” means “hollow,” and it is how Rigoletto is meant to sing, and probably how he feels watching his beloved daughter fall apart before his eyes after he failed to protect her from his nefarious employer.

Taci, il piangere non vale
Ch'ei mentiva sei sicura.
Taci, e mia sarà la cura
la vendetta d'affrettar.
Pronta fia, sarà fatale,
io saprollo fulminar

Be quiet, crying doesn't work
You are sure that he lied to you.
Be quiet, and my cure will be
To hurry to vengeance.
It will be quick, it will be fatal,
I know how to strike him down.

In addition to the Duke’s plea for love, Maddalena’s internal laughter, Gilda’s internal tears, and Rigoletto’s furious murmurings about how he will fix things, if we listen even more carefully, we can hear the relationships between the characters. Let’s take a look at just two measures of the score and see what we can discover. If you don’t know how to read music or speak Italian, don’t worry! You can think of the dots on the lines and spaces below as a pattern. Just like with in any other kind of graph, you can draw conclusions from what you see.

At this moment, Gilda and the Duke are singing in thirds, which is typical of a love duet, but in terms of the words and intensions, the Duke is still seducing Maddalena, saying that she can soothe his pain with only a word (of love), while Gilda is willing her heart not to explode from the betrayal she feels hearing the Duke using the same words to seduce Maddalena that he had used to seduce her. At the same time, Maddalena is singing a downward chromatic scale (C, Cflat, Bflat, A, A flat) while ridiculing the Duke, who thinks he is being so suave while Maddalena knows exactly what he is doing. Rigoletto’s line converges with Maddalena’s on the Bflat, since he is singing her line in reverse, an upward chromatic scale (Aflat, A, Bflat, B, C). Rigoletto and Maddalena might seem like an unlikely pair, but they are both people who are powerless because of their social standing and required to laugh even when their hearts are breaking. It is also important to note that although Rigoletto and Gilda aren’t paired musically, their text matches: they both sing the word “no” twice followed by “non.” The musical lines of Maddalena and the Duke never converge, showing that the Duke’s seduction is not as successful as he would like, at least at this point in the scene.

Exploring the Rigoletto quartet in such detail can show us that at every moment of the opera, there is a lot of meaning embedded in the music in addition to the words that the characters sing. When you consider the fact that the orchestra contributes additional meaning as do the visual elements of the performance, you might feel overwhelmed! How are we supposed to take in so much information at the same time?! We might be afraid that our brains might explode, just like Gilda’s heart! The wonderful thing about opera though is that we don’t always have to understand it intellectually. We can also feel it instinctively.

Dedicated funding for the Sounds of Learning Dress Rehearsal Program has been provided by The William Penn Foundation, Hamilton Family Charitable Trust, Eugene Garfield Foundation, Wells Fargo, Universal Health Services, Hirsig Family Fund of the Philadelphia Foundation, The McLean Contributionship, and Mr. William A. Loeb

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