In the Facebook contest that the San Francisco Opera held this spring to announce their season (where they posted a photo clue each day and the first person to guess the opera it represented won two tickets to a performance), the very first clue was a picture of Rita Hayworth in Gilda, one of my favorite movies growing up. I’m sure if I had any real knowledge of opera, I would have known instantly that the opera in question was Rigoletto, which tells the story of a hunchbacked court jester, Rigoletto, and his beautiful daughter, Gilda. Unfortunately, until recently, I had never even listened to Rigoletto, and the only Gilda I knew was the one that did this incredible nightclub striptease:

I’m sorry to have been in the dark for so long, because, musically, Rigoletto is a thing of beauty. It ranks right up there with Rossini’s La Cenerentola as a score I just loved listening to, even before seeing the opera. I guess this shouldn’t be surprising, given that Rigoletto is one of Verdi’s most popular operas, surpassed only by La traviata in number of performances. Among other catchy tunes, it features “La donna è mobile,” favored by gondoliers everywhere.

The Court at Mantua. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Despite my love of the music in this opera, the plot leaves a little to be desired. Based on Victor Hugo’s Le Roi s’amuse, which takes place in the court of François 1er, for political reasons the action of the libretto was moved to Lombardia and the court of the Duke of Mantua. I don’t know the play, but in the opera we don’t get very much set up that would explain the behavior of the three principals in what follows.

The opera opens at court with the Duke selecting a noblewoman to bed (in front of her husband) and another nobleman cursing the Duke and his dissolute ways—in fact, the opera was originally titled La maledizione (The Curse). Rigoletto seems to encourage the Duke at every turn, despite having a young daughter himself. This doesn’t escape the notice of either nobleman, with one cursing him and the other swearing vengeance. Later that night, an assassin approaches Rigoletto in the street and offers his services. Why? I don’t know, this seems to happen out of the blue.

Željko Lučić as Rigoletto. Photo by Cory Weaver.

When Rigoletto returns home, we learn that the woman people suspect is his mistress is really his daughter who he has kept concealed from the Duke and his court. No fool, that fool. Naturally, all his caution is for naught as Gilda has secretly been making googly eyes at the Duke in church. He sneaks into her house pretending he is a poor student and they declare their love. Shortly thereafter, to get revenge on Rigoletto, Count Ceprano’s friends kidnap his “mistress” and bring her to the Duke. Why? I don’t know, isn’t the Duke the one who actually bedded Ceprano’s wife?

Francesco Demuro as the Duke of Mantua and Aleksandra Kurzak as Gilda. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Rigoletto, haunted by the idea of the curse, rushes off to find his daughter, but arrives too late. Rigoletto vows revenge (gee, if only he knew an assassin!) while Gilda begs mercy for the Duke. In the final act, Rigoletto and Gilda arrive at an inn to look for the assassin, only to find the Duke once again disguised as a student flirting with the assassin’s sister. Why? I don’t know, hasn’t he had enough action for one night? By the way, this is where “La donna è mobile” (“Woman is fickle”) comes in. Ah, irony.

In any case, Rigoletto ends up hiring the assassin, Gilda still loves the Duke despite his fickle ways, and for some reason the sister begs the assassin to spare this random student she just met. The assassin agrees, as long as another victim can be found to pretend to fulfill the agreement made with Rigoletto. Gilda, who has overheard this conversation, decides to sacrifice herself to save the Duke. Why? I don’t know. Most opera plots are ridiculous, but somehow that really pushes the limits of my suspension of disbelief. The opera closes with Rigoletto’s discovery that the body he thinks is the Duke is really Gilda and a final cry of “la maledizione!”

Despite this plot, I can see why Rigoletto is a staple of the standard repertoire and I highly recommend it as a starter opera.

Željko Lučić and Aleksandra Kurzak. Photo by Cory Weaver.

This production, which opens the San Francisco Opera’s 90th season, certainly didn’t disappoint. Some of the sets left a little to be desired, but I couldn’t find fault with any of the principals. The standout for me was Aleksandra Kurzak as Gilda. Sopranos often seem to be the weak link for me, but I found her voice to be clean, clear, and strong. This may have been the first time she sang with the San Francisco Opera, but I hope it won’t be her last.

Rigoletto is being performed through September 30th at the War Memorial Opera House, including a free simulcast at AT&T Park on September 15th.