“Tutte le feste al tempio” – on the Character of Gilda in Rigoletto

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.

10 responses to ““Tutte le feste al tempio” – on the Character of Gilda in Rigoletto

  1. This is SO interesting to me. I’m currently learning Gilda, my first one, and its so helpful to read something on her with a gender perspective. My biggest struggle has been to understand how she can be so blindly in love with someone who has ‘raped’ her, if that is what we’re to think. But, going back to Hugo’s play, there is an interesting scene between Blanche and Triboulet in the beginning of act four (just before the famous quartet in the opera) where Gilda speaks of her love for the King and that she can’t quite understand herself how she can love somebody so passionately that has deceived her so. We know that its been a month since she was abducted to the King’s palace and in her conversation with Triboulet she says: “He loves me, nay, adores. ‘Twas but last night…” And there Trriboulet interrupts her. Could this suggest that she’s actually been seeing the King several times during the month that has passed? In that case, the King has had a long time to woe her and to make her think and feel like she really is the only one he loves. In this scene she also says that she would die for him, like she would for her father. So the decision later on when she enters the tavern to be killed, maybe isn’t so rash and impulsive as it might seem.
    I don’t know, I’m still in a process of finding out, and its not really until you get to rehearsals and performances that you can find out, I think. I completely understand your obsession with this character, especially since you most often see her being played as a complete victim of her circumstances and to me it never really makes sense.

  2. atthelighthouse

    Dear Julia
    I was delighted to get this comment from you – a person who is actually studying the part. Most interesting to hear you thoughts on Gilda!

    As to your question: Hudson addresses this in her article as well – she takes Blanche’s line about “just the other night” to mean that Gilda has actually become the Duke’s steady mistress, if you will. Like you, I really like to keep this in the back of my mind when watching the final act, because I agree with you that this makes a lot more sense in regard to Gilda’s sacrifice. I still think that everything about Gilda’s first night at the castle points towards (date) rape, but like you said; a subsequent relationship would have given Gilda time and opportunity to form an attachment to the Duke that would make her want to sacrifise herself to save his life. (Still, it’s a terrible idea, of course. Tsk-tsk, Gilda!).

    If you feel like it, do let me know how your attitude towards the character as you start rehearsals/performances!


  3. Hello Marie!
    I came across your article as I was actually searching for a translation of the aria ‘tutte le feste’, which I am studying. But it was really interesting and I read it all in one breath! (Not really in one breath. But, you know.) Thank you, I enjoyed that an I surely learned from it – fresh perspectives are always great. Compliments!

  4. atthelighthouse

    Thank you! I’m happy to hear that you enjoyed it. Best of luck to you studying “Tutte le feste” – there is a translation of the piece here if you’re still looking for one: http://www.aria-database.com/translations/rig13_tutte.txt


  5. I have searched some articles about Gilda’s character recently through webs and academic research such a JSTOR. Your comment about what happening in Duke’s room gives me a different point of view to figure out her true thought when she finally make that decision. I will look up that article on JSTOR and let you know if I come up with new ideas. Thanks a lot!

  6. Dear Marie,
    I came across your article when google-searching for a pshycological analysis of Gilda, because I’m also puzzled as to that gap in the opera plot: what happened in the Duke’s chamber? Most plots ommit to say whether Gilda was raped or not. The idea of the rape doesn’t quite add up, in my view. Gilda would have to be like a mistreated wife who still loves her husband or suffer from Stokholm syndrome for her to be willing to die for a man who completely abused her. I’m currently studying the role, and most teachers say: ¨she was raped, don’t look for complexity in the plot¨. But, knowing that the libretto is based on a literary work, I just can’t accept that the Gilda is such a simple character.
    I would say that she wasn’t raped. All she says about what happened in the Duke’s chamber is that she is ashamed. So, I say: ¨ashamed of what? Of being raped or of having lost her virginity in a non-bridal chamber?¨ It might be that a woman at that time could have felt guilty of having aroused lust in a man, but in that case Gilda is an utter fool, and I don’t think that Verdi, who created Violetta Valery, would have created a heroine who was so silly and a martyr out of sheer stupidity. It is the idea of the shame and the dishonour that triggers Rigoletto’s wish for vendetta, not the fact that her daughter was the victim of brutal sexual violence. In our time, a father would want to take revenge because of the rape but I don’t think that shame would be the motive for the revenge. Here is when the cultural context plays an important role for us to deconstruct this story.
    Sorry if this comment is a little bit messy. I guess I’m thinking out loud. I still haven’t come up with a final conclusion as to that huge gap in the plot.
    Thanks a lot for your insightful article!

  7. Hi Marie: Very thoughtful and insightful article. When Gilda tells her father what hapened – then the duet where they console each other occurs there is the event that brings Rigoletto out of his sorrow and that is the passing of Monterone to his doom saying that he still has not been avenged and the Duke is still as decadent as ever.
    It is at this point that Rigoletto’s sorrow turns to revenge with the Si Vendetta and Gilda implores him to forgive the Duke (because she loves him) and her argument is that God forgives and so we must also forgive..
    She is terrified that her father and protector has turned into a raving maniac who is intent on murdering the man she loves. What a conflict
    It seems she truly and dearly loves the Duke in spite of (or because of)
    what happened and she is facing a horrible dilemma. Rigoletto has chosen revenge and she will probably do her best between scenes to convince him to do otherwise. Unfortunately to no avail.

  8. Fantastic article! I’m in the non-rape, quick seduction camp, myself.😉

  9. Thank you for your article and JSTOR invitation:) Can I point out, that Gilda was not only raised by her father: it’s in the church, where the duke saw her for the first time. From the christian perspective self-sacrifice is not foolish. All depends on mindset: if someone think, that her only “healthy” choice was to let her father kill the beast, what does it say about his anthropological beliefs? how do we call him? Self-centered, self-concerned, materialistic, Darwinian…? I feel – after yesterdays visit in the opera – like after “Breaking the Waves” (Lars von Trier’s film)…. unsure. And that’s good!

  10. Someone told me I should sing Gilda, and I therefor also just started looking in to the music. Only some parts of Gildas music so far.

    This is what I think: In the play Gilda is only 15 years old, a mere child.

    She IS being raped by the Duke. But was also seduced before that point to believe she was in love.

    Can a 15 year old be a mistress to a grown man for a month? What would we call it today? She was locked in by a very powerful, grown man that abused her and amused himself with her for a month.

    The fact that she feels ashame afterwards is not strange. Many women, even modern ones, go though feelings of shame and guilt after a rape. It’s common to having to seek psycological help for this.

    She has been held as a sort of sex-slave in the dukes house, and is no longer a virgin, or innocent at all, which is considered a shame for a young girl in her culture.

    In “Tutte le feste” I don’t hear sensuality, maturity yes, but the dark music to me suggest big-time tradgedy. Loss of innocence. In that regard Gilda has gained a great depth. Of coure it is also a voice of someone “that knows”, she has been through all sorts of sexual things with the duke.

    It is also not unusal that a victim of a rape tries to be very nice to the person raping her afterwards. There are exemples of victims of rape that offers breakfast to the one having raped them in the morning. The thing that just happened is so sick so you are trying to make the situation normal by being overly nice. If she’s been locked in with the duke for a month also somehow she must have gotten close to him. I think it’s a bit same as the Stockholm syndrome.

    Finally I think Gilda loves the duke in the christian sense: Even the worst people and your worst enemy you should love regarding to christianity . So I don’t really think it is the romantic love but a christian, much bigger love that comes into play in the end.

    To sacrifice hereself may also be a way for her to commit suicide and make it in a way that has a meaning. As a final thing I think she might pay hommage to her large feelings of being in love in the beginning by killing herself, so in a sense she IS sacrificing herself to the young man she believed the duke was in the beginning.

    When someone used the most beautiful thing you have inside of your self in such an awful way there really is no point in staying alive anymore. So I think in a sense she sacrifies herself for her true and large feelings of romantic love.

    I used to not wanting to get into operatic singing because I am a lyric coloratura. I red the caracters I would play would only be cute small caracters with not much deepth. Sine I am myself a dramatic and serious person I didn’t want that.

    I find now that this really isn’t the case. I see Gilda in spite of her young age as a larger than life caracter who propells the whole play and is really daring and living big time.

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