In Pictures – Verdi's Rigoletto

According to OperabaseRigoletto (1851) is one of the most commonly performed operas worldwide. What can production posters and photographs reveal about Verdi's enigmatic hunchback jester?

Thomas G. Fowler, Connecticut Grand Opera & Orchestra (1991)

This poster was designed and illustrated by Thomas G. Fowler for the Connecticut Grand Opera & Orchestra. The graphic illustration contrasts the brightly coloured Rigoletto against a black background. The character is depicted wearing a traditional jester's hat with bells and a brightly colourful striped tunic. He is positioned horizontally across the page and his face is pointed downwards with closed eyes and a gloomy expression. 

Fowler's illustration calls to mind the culmination of the opera's events with a devoted father's loss of his beloved daughter, as well as Rigoletto's associated characterisation as a tragic victim of fate.

Matt Leunig, San Fransisco Opera (2017)

This illustration for the cover of the programme of San Fransisco Opera's 2017 production encapsulates Rigoletto's moral ambiguity. The protagonist gazes down at a dagger with a grim expression. The weapon's hilt is shaped like a young woman - presumably Gilda. On the back of his head, Rigoletto wears a Venetian-style jester's mask with a long, crooked nose and sinister smile.

In a letter to the director of the Teatro de Fenice in Venice, dated 1851, Verdi described his protagonist as an 'extremely deformed and ridiculous character who is inwardly passionate and full of love'.

In terms of his fierce love for his daughter and desperate desire to protect her from a corrupt society, Rigoletto garners sympathy. At the same time, however, his virtual imprisonment of Gilda is perhaps more telling of a sinister and objectifying desire to preserve her innocence. If this is the case, is Rigoletto's desire for revenge over Gilda's mistreatment by the Duke the response of a loving father or a reflection of wounded masculine pride?

In Leunig's illustration, Rigoletto's clutching of and concentration on the dagger reflects the commodification of Gilda as the object of indulgent idealisation.

Stephan Bundi, Theater Biel Solothurn (2013)

Bundi's award-winning depiction of Verdi's protagonist uses a simple yet striking colour scheme of black, white, and yellow. Rigoletto's facial features are only suggested by the play between light and dark. His jester's hat is comprised of a superimposed photograph of metal blades – perhaps a literal representation of the nature of Gilda's death, or even a comment on Rigoletto's dark side. 

In his book  The Changing Face of Evil in Film and Television, Martin F. Norden describes the convergence of disability and morality to create the stereotype of the 'Odious Avenger'. 

...a character (almost always an adult male) who in the name of revenge relentlessly pursues those he holds responsible for his disablement, some other moral-code violation, or both.
— Norden (25)

The term could certainly be ascribed to Verdi's protagonist, who, in some ways, is an archetypical disabled villain. His misshapen body is stereotypically framed as a reflection of his embittered and vengeful mind. As in so many disability narratives, both his outward and inward deformities are juxtaposed with the beauty and wholesomeness of another, Gilda.

Hartmut Henning, Komische Oper Berlin (1983)

© Hartmut Henning

Henning's poster features a half-human, half-feline face, the lower half of which is covered by a smiling clown mask with jagged teeth. The image may represent an amalgam of the opera's central characters. Another striking colour scheme here – this time the image is all black and white apart from lips and eyes.

Another production of Rigoletto at the Berlin Comic Opera (2009) used (at times, terrifying) clown imagery. You can view some of the production photographs here

Francesca Ballarini, Macerata Opera Festival (2015)

The clown theme continues with this image from the 2015 production of the opera at the Macerata Opera Festival. This advertisement poster features a sketched image of a large, white clown face, the mouth of which is gaping open to create the illusion of a doorway. This imagery was incorporated into the set design for the production, shown below. 

Production Photograph: Alfredo Tabocchin

For me, the protagonist's placement in front of the clown calls to mind his internal conflict. His diminutive stature respective to the face also illustrates his helplessness and despair, particularly in the face of a society that values power above all else. Indeed, Verdi's opera deals with the power of men over women, wealth over poverty, and ruler over subject.

Selecting the right image for a poster can entice opera-goers, and poster designs can reveal a lot about the interpretation of a work by production teams. The images featured here certainly showcase the diversity of approaches to Rigoletto by opera companies in recent years.

What's more, these images underline the fact that, while disabled characters in opera are typically characterised within the restrictive confines of victimhood or villainy, Verdi's hunchbacked jester is one of the genre's most morally ambiguous disabled protagonists.