I am JSTOR’s whore. Seriously, you can find anything there. Ever had a weird obsession about some topic or other? Do a search and you’ll find that someone else did, too. And they did serious research on the subject. With footnotes.
A weird obsession of mine since young adulthood has been Gilda from Verdi’s Rigoletto. Which propably sounds strange to most people. There is nothing obviously remarkable about her, and I believe that you could easily make the assertment that Gilda is nothing more than a plot device in the tragic story: She’s what the poor, down-trodden Rigoletto treasures and what the ruthless men of power take away from him.
But then she does take action out of her own free will, by sacrifising herself to save the Duke, and while I think this is a fatally stupid thing to do, this is in part what interests me about her. The fact that she chooses this for herself, chooses to be so selfdestructively altruistic. Rigoletto ultimately perishes while selling out from his morals, trying to preserve his poor, unattractive self in a world that’s reserved for the beautiful and the rich, by being a vicious court jester. When Gilda’s in a position to make her own choice, she chooses to do the exact opposite thing; she chooses to perish by means of being extraordinarily good. Foolish, but good. And at least it’s her own choice.
Anyway. I did a search at JSTOR and was comforted by the search results which showed me that I’m not alone in being interested in the Gilda character. I found a truly great and interesting article: “Gilda Seduced – a Tale Untold” by Elizabeth Hudson, published in Cambridge Opera Journal vol. 4.
Hudson’s intriguing point in the article is the fact that although Gilda may seem like a fairly simple and straightforward character, there is one important thing that we do not know about her: We are left almost completely in the dark as to what happened to Gilda when she was alone with the Duke in his chamber after having been abducted and held there by the courtiers.
It’s really interesting once you start noticing it: In most summaries of the opera, the summarist seems to be unsure about what he’s supposed to do with those missing minutes of the operas. In a lot of summaries the incident is bypassed completely. This is the case with the wikipedia summary for instance: “By their description, [the Duke] recognizes it to be Gilda, and he rushes off to the room where she is held” it simply says, and then later “Gilda describes to her father what has happened to her in the palace.” I myself once had to do a summary of the opera, and this part of the opera was the one that gave me the most troubles. I ended up writing, somewhat vaguely, that the Duke had “amused himself” with Gilda.
I guess you could say that what happened in there was too obvious and too trivial to write about. Elizabeth Hudson’s point, however is that it really isn’t, and that maybe it’s left ambigious for a reason.
She begins by pointing out something that I cannot believe I never noticed before about the second act of Rigoletto: The fact that the act opens with no less than three different narrative episodes, all recounting the same incident, albeit from different perspectives, namely the incident of Gilda’s abduction by the courtiers. First we get the Duke’s version (“Ella mi fu rapita! … Parmi veder le lagrime”), then the courtier’s (“Scorrendo uniti remota via”), and then Gilda’s (“Tutte le feste al tempio”). Hudson convincingly argues that the first two narrative episodes serve a fairly obvious purpose: They form the set-up for the Duke’s double aria “Ella mi fu rapita!” and “Parmi veder le lagrime” and for the Duke’s cabaletta “Possente amor me chiama” at a time when the inclusion of such pieces, so Hudson explains, was a conventionality in Italian operas.
The third narrative episode, however, stands out: Gilda’s “Tutte le feste al tempio”. There seems to be no apparent reason for Gilda to tell the story of her abduction in this scene, and as Hudson argues, she seems to be recounting the wrong story here: She ought to be telling Rigoletto what happened in the Duke’s bed chamber, what he did to her in there. After all, Gilda’s defloration by the Duke is what motivates Rigoletto to have the Duke killed in the third act, and in Victor Hugo’s play we’re treated to a scene that makes it quite explicit what happened between them: Blanche (the name of the court jester’s daughter in the play) is appalled to find out about her ardent lover’s true identity, begs the openly lustful Duke to be let go, and finally tries to flee into an adjacent chamber. The Duke laughs brutally and goes after her, producing a key: The frightened girl has fled into his royal bed chamber! But instead she confesses to having met with the Duke (in disguise) at their home, ending her confession with the opera’s third recount of Gilda’s abduction by the hands of the courtiers.
What seems like an irrelevant confession in the place of what would have been a highly relevant victim’s account may, however, in Hudson’s view, be testimony to Gilda’s development from child to woman. Musically, “Tutte le feste” is much more sophisticated than what we have hitherto heard from Gilda, argues Hudson:
“A transformation has occured, she casts aside her childish voice; she has left behind the crinoline trills and furbelows of Act I; her expressive power has deepened, her vocal character matured.”
Of course, if Gilda has been brutally violated by the Duke, such an expression of maturity or power seems arbitrary. But as she analyses the lyrics of Gilda’s seemingly irrelevant confession, Hudson proposes that maybe what Gilda lived through was not a case of rape, but of a seduction in which Gilda herself was an active party who made a choice for herself to be with the Duke:
“[C]onfession can do more than simply reveal the domination of the interlocutor. As Foucault point out, it is also: ‘a ritual in which the expression alone, indendently of its external consequences, produces intrinsic modifications in the person who articulates it: it exonerates, redeems, and purifies him; it unburdens him of his wrongs, liberates him, and promises him salvation.”
Of course, Gilda isn’t allowed to complete her confession, it is cut short by Rigoletto who interrupts her with his “Ah! Solo per me l’infamia”. But as Hudson argues, Gilda has already managed to make an impact on Rigoletto with her aborted confession and this is expressed in the music, even after her voice is silenced:
“Her newfound musical power and force of expression superposes a telling element on to her confession. What is more, when her father does join in the duet, Gilda’s voice is not silenced. As we would expect, Rigoletto first enters with his own sixteen-bar period (‘Solo per me l’infamia’); but when this gives way to a slower tempo and a new key (at ‘Piangi, piangi, fanciulla’) and Gilda joins him, she sustains her fledging musical identity: she extends his phrases, eventually carrying the emotional weight of the music in her vocal line. (…) her passionate voice can, in fact, be heard as a moment of ‘true confession’, in which she reveals sexual truth – (…) We discover not a terrorised, shuddering girl, but rather a young woman embracing passion and finding the first glimmers of her identity: a moment of self-definition.”
Hudson acknowledges that such a short glimpse of power in Gilda is hardly enough evidence to the fact that Gilda was seduced rather than raped, “we need something more than substantial than this single moment of self-expression” writes Hudson, and she finds this, interestingly, in the Duke’s much discussed “Ella mi fu rapita!… Parmi veder le lagrime”:
“In the aria, he addresses no one: we assume we are hearing the outpourings of his inner soul. And yet the musical and verbal style do not fit with the Duke’s superficial character: it is too compelling; its expressive power is peculiar. He claims that his love for Gilda is genuine; the music moves us to believe him. Some commentators, in their attempt to reconcile musical and dramatic content, have asked us to believe him as well, claiming that the lyric expression of this aria extends and deepends, rather than contradicts, our picture of the Duke’s character. Thus (…) [Julian] Budden is so convinced by the Duke’s seeming sincerity in this aria that he suggests that it has a ‘subtle aptness': because the Duke is so succesful at deceiving others, he manages to deceive himself, at least momentarily.
I am unwilling to give the Duke so much credit. Even the aria itself is not without ambiguity. Any interpretation of the Adagio must respond in part to the larger formal context in which it is placed; and the use of adouble aria for the Duke is entirely consistent with his musical portrayal throughout the opera. His character is in part determined by the conventional forms that he sings – strophic aria, folk-like canzone: a double aria completes the conventional gamut. (…) More importantly, however, if we remember that this aria replaces Hugo’s seduction scene, we can hear the Duke’s aria as inscribing the discorse of seduction: in the Adagio, we witness the full persuasiveness of the Duke’s voice, something we hear only glimmers of elsewhere; we hear the voice that will persuade Gilda that he loves her so powerfully that she continues to believe it, and to love him, in the face os his betrayal. In Hugo’s seduction scene, suasion breaks down and the Duke resorts to force, laughing at Blanche’s attempt to escape – making it diffiuclt for an audience to comprehend her continued adoration in the final act. But in Verdi, only the audience witnesses the breaking of the illusion in the cabaletta, the change, in Budden’s words, ‘from… poet to… strutting peacock.'”
It is a highly interesting interpretation, I think. Hudson of course makes some points regarding the music that I am neither qualified to support nor challenge because I am a literature rather than a music scholar, and you should certainly read her very well-written article yourselves, in order to fully appreciate her thesis.
While still maintaining my reservations concerning my own ability to enter into a musical analysis of Rigoletto, I will say that I’m not sure I buy Hudson’s interpretation completely. Hudson makes an excellent case, but in my heart I find it hard to believe that it would be possible for the Duke to get innocent and timid Gilda to give it up to him in such a relatively short time-span (even if we don’t insist on seeing the time-span of “La-ra, la-ra… Cortigiani” as a precise indicator for the time the Duke spends alone with Gilda), without at least some element of force. Moreover, I don’t necessarily see a problem in Gilda’s being in love with the Duke even after a supposed rape: All Gilda has ever known is a father whom she is expected to love unconditionally, even though he keeps her locked up and refuses to even tell her his name! It makes sense to me that Gilda would grow up to fall for a guy who pins her down and lies about his identity to her. So I guess I don’t feel the same need that Hudson feels to find an alternative to the date-rape plot. As for the Duke’s aria, I think I’m with Budden: I’ve always seen this expression of heart-felt love and pity as the Duke succesfully deceiving himself.
But apart from these minor objections of mine, I really like Elizabeth Hudson’s article because it brings focus to Gilda as more than just a weak, pitiful woman or a plot a devise. As Hudson’s writes:
“Her tragedy lies not in the act of choosing, but in the subject of her choice, and in the self-sacrificial love (taught her by her father) that leads in Act III to give up her short-lived sense of herself in favour of a man who deceived and betrayed her.”
Whether Gilda is seduced or raped, Gilda is wronged and deceived by the Duke. But she sings her “Tuttle le feste” with a beautiful, powerful voice that overrules the mocking chorus of the courtiers and that echoes the love that the Duke might have been able to feel for Gilda, had he not been a spoiled royal douchebag of a seducer. She remembers the “ansia píu crudel” she has suffered, but she also cherishes the “speme píu gradita” the Duke inspired in her, and this is what motivates her in the third act to make her foolish, but loving sacrifice. Gilda is even in disguise and lying about her identity in the third act (dressed in men’s clothes for her’s and her father’s journey), just like her father has been all her life, but whereas Rigoletto has used his alter ego to mock and ridicule people, Gilda uses her disguise to gain access to Sparafucile’s inn where she will be able to die for her love. In Hugo’s universe there is no chance of wealth and happiness for poor and down-trodden people such as Rigoletto and Gilda, but when given the chance, Gilda makes an active choice not to follow in the foot-steps of her vengeful, bitter father into the darkness of their poverty and humility. She turns the other cheek, and she chooses love over vengeance and hatred.
And for that I think she should be given credit.