( Italy: In Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave , 1851; based on Le roi s'amuse by Victor Hugo, 1832)
Peter N. Chetta
When Victor Hugo play Le roi s'amuse was produced in 1832, it was banned after the first performance because of the sensitivity of the bourgeois Bourbon King Louis-Philippe to any criticism of a monarch. The play depicts Francis I of France as a debauched, lecherous figure whose jester, Triboulet, aids and abets him in his philandering. Triboulet had been created in the sixteenth century by François Rabelais in Gargantua and Pantagruel, where he is described in a catalogue of characteristics taking up three pages ( Rabelais392-396). But Hugo transformed him ( Godefroy194-195), describing him in his preface to Le roi s'amuse as being deformed, sick, a court jester -- "a triple misfortune which makes him evil" ( Budden478). Indeed, the tradition of a deformed person, in this case a hunchback, being used to amuse a decadent social class is longstanding.
But the play attracted Giuseppe Verdi as a possible source of an opera as early as December 1849 ( Osborne213), and the resulting opera is extremely faithful to the play. Librettist Francesco Maria Piave's Italian is, "for the most part, a direct, though necessarily abridged translation of Hugo" ( Osborne235). A few changes were made, however. While in the Hugo play the jester is a figure in a royal court, Piave and Verdi place him in a ducal court. Although the period of the opera is the same as that of the play, the locales are changed ( Godefroy196), probably because of problems with the censors, who, for political reasons once again, opposed an onstage depiction of a proposed assassination of a royal monarch.