September 15, 2014

Rigoletto Todd: the Demon Jester of Mantua Street

Sweeney's daddy? Titta Ruffo as Rigoletto
In my book The Opera Zoo: Singers, Composers and other Primates, I wrote some essays about Verdi's middle-period masterwork Rigoletto in advance of Virginia Opera's 2010 production. In one of those, I made the case that the opera was uncannily close in plot points, characters and themes to Stephen Sondheim's musical thriller Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

Well, Faithful Readers, it's four years later, and Sweeney and his friends will be making their company debut at the end of the month. I'm sure in the time between these productions I've managed to pick up two or three new readers, so strictly for their benefit I now recap this bit of "compare and contrast". (Also, I'm lazy. Sue me.) See if you think my argument holds water. Or meat pie gravy, as the case may be...

A.
  • Rigoletto was once married to the love of his life, but lost her - a tragedy that haunts him. He sings mournfully about her in the solo "Deh, non parlare al misero", in which he recalls her as an "angel" who showed compassion to such a "lonely, deformed, poor" man as himself.
  • Sweeney Todd was once married to the love of his life, but now believes she is dead. He sings mournfully about her in the solo "There was a barber and his wife", in which he describes her as "virtuous" and himself as "foolish".
B.
  • Rigoletto's sole surviving family member is his daugher Gilda.
  • Sweeney Todd's sole surviving family member is his daughter Joanna.
C.
  • Rigoletto's nemesis is the Duke of Mantua, a serial womanizer whose crude obsession with women belies his wealth and social standing. Rigoletto hates him for having debauched his daughter.
  • Sweeney Todd's nemesis is Judge Turpin, a serial womanizer whose obsession with women belies his wealth and social standing. Todd hates him for having debauched his wife.
D.
  • The Duke of Mantua sings a musical number in which, while praising women, he also objectifies them: "Questo o quella".
  • Judge Turpin sings a musical number (with Todd) in which, while praising women, he also objectifies them: "Pretty women".
E.
  • Rigoletto's bitterness and rage toward his fellow man erupts in a violent solo, "Cortigiani, vil razza dannata".
  • Sweeney Todd's bitterness and rage toward his fellow man erupts in a violent solo, "Epiphany".
F.
  • Rigoletto's thirst for vengeance via murder results in a catastrophe: the unintended killing of his daughter. He collapses in remorse.
  • Sweeney Todd's thirst for vengeance via murder results in a catastrophe: the unintended killing of his wife. He collapses in remorse.
What does all this prove? Mostly, it demonstrates something we already knew: that throughout human history, the traditions of storytelling include archetypes that appear and reappear from one generation to the next.

Second, with apologies to all the 20th-century operas which debut at opera houses, receive a few performances, and ultimately fail to enter the so-called "standard repertoire", one can argue that the entertainment known for the past four hundred years as "opera" has most compellingly been represented by Broadway musicals like Sweeney Todd in modern times. Sweeney's mix of complex, sophisticated music and popular appeal recalls operas like Tosca and Carmen more convincingly than some avant-garde operas I could mention.

Oh, and as a bonus "contrast and compare" not mentioned in 2010's blog post, here's another observation: Sweeney Todd also echoes Rossini's Barber of Seville.  

Think about it: 
  • Joanna is the ward of the elderly Judge Turpin, who keeps her a prisoner in his house and intends to marry her. The dashing sailor Anthony Hope serenades her ("I feel you, Joanna") and vows to steal her away for himself. In Barber,
  • Rosina is the ward of the elderly Doctor Bartolo, who keeps her a prisoner in his house and intends to marry her. The dashing Count Almaviva serenades her ("Ecco ridente") and vows to steal her away for himself.
Gotta love archetypes!


1 comment:

  1. Glenn, you're right on target, and I particularly appreciate your referencing archetypes that run, not only through opera, but storytelling and art. Oddly, I have just recently been experiencing a Broadway musical intensive, buying up about 25 shows from "Anything Goes" to "Book of Morman." Currently, I've been having the best time with Sondheim, reveling not only in the great music and stories, but the multi-layered complexity that tells us so much about ourselves in relation to the human condition (loving Elaine Strich in "Ladies Who Lunch!").

    I'm happy to repost this!

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