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Verdi Reacts to the Censors’ Proposed Changes to the Libretto of Rigoletto

Verdi had to fight many battles with censors throughout his artistic career. Government officials were quick to realize the political potential of the genre of opera, and various state offices kept close watch over the librettos, the music, and the staging of new works. Venice, like most of Italy, was at the time under the direct or indirect control of the Austrian Empire, and an opera like Rigoletto, depicting a dissolute monarch, was inevitably subjected to intense scrutiny. Censors demanded that many elements of the plot be altered: among other changes, the character of the Duke was to be made more sympathetic, and Rigoletto (called "Triboletto" at this stage of the production) was to lose his humpback. In this letter of December 14, 1850, to Carlo Marzari, president of La Fenice (the Venetian theater that had commissioned Verdi’s new work), Verdi reacts angrily to the proposed changes.

"I have taken very little time to re-examine the new libretto: but I have seen enough to realize that, reduced to the present condition, it lacks character and importance; further, the dramatic moments have become very cool indeed. . . . In the fifth scene of Act I, all that anger vented by the courtiers against Triboletto [the original name of the jester, later changed to Rigoletto] makes no sense. The old man’s malediction [curse], so terrible and sublime in the original, becomes ridiculous here, because the motive for his malediction is not so important any more, and because this is no longer a subject speaking so boldly to his king. Without this malediction what purpose, what significance does the play have? The Duke is a nonentity: the Duke must absolutely be a libertine; otherwise, Triboletto’s fear that his daughter might leave her hiding place is ungrounded: and the play impossible. How does it happen that the Duke, in the last act, goes to a remote tavern all alone, without an invitation, without an appointment? I don’t understand why the sack was taken out! Of what consequence was the sack to the police? Are they afraid of its effect? Forgive me, but what makes them think they know more about the subject than I do? Who is entitled to be a Maestro? Who is entitled to say, this will be effective, that won’t? A difficulty of that kind arose on account of the horn in Ernani [one of Verdi’s earlier operas]. Well then, did anyone laugh at the sound of that horn? Take away that sack, and it becomes improbable that Triboletto should speak to a corpse for half an hour, till a flash of lightning reveals it to be that of his daughter. Finally, I note that they have avoided making Triboletto ugly and humpbacked!! A singing humpback? Why not! . . . Will it be effective? I don’t know; but if I don’t know, neither does, I repeat, the person who suggested the change. As a matter of fact, I think it is a very fine thing to depict this extremely deformed and ridiculous character who is inwardly impassioned and full of love. I chose the subject expressly because of these qualities, and if these original traits are removed, I can no longer set it to music. If I’m told that my notes will suit the present drama just as well, I answer that I have no understanding for these arguments, and I frankly state that, good or bad, I never write music at random and I always manage to give it character.

"In short, what was an original, powerful play has been turned into something very common and cold. I very much regret that the Board of Directors has not answered my last letter. I can only repeat and request that what I wrote in it should be carried out, for upon my artist’s conscience I cannot set this libretto to music."

Source: Letters of Composers through Six Centuries, ed. Piero Weiss (Philadelphia, Chilton, 1967), pp. 217–8.

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