What happens when le meilleur de deux mondes (the best of two worlds) meet together?
That is, when the genius literary work of French author Victor Hugo is interpreted by the virtuosity of Italian Opera maestro Giuseppe Verdi?
Today, Giuseppe Verdi is widely celebrated as one of the major figures of what Italians proudly remember as “il Risorgimento“, the movement which, exactly 150 years ago, gave birth to l’unification de l’Italie (the Italian unification.) Many people, however, still ignore, even in today’s Italy, that their beloved maestro italiano was in fact born a Frenchman!
The reason being that, when Verdi was born, the region of his birth, which included the current city of Parma, was incorporated into the freshly conquered territories of the Napoleonic Empire—a fact that his mother aimed to conceal à tout prix (at all costs) by not disclosing to anyone his true date d’anniversaire (birthday date)!
Whether or not that had anything to do with his “naissance française” (“French birth”), lying on a strict “technicality” that is, Verdi was unquestionably known to have professed an unbound admiration for the French literature prevailing in his time. His la Traviata, for example, was an opera adaptation of a major work of Alexandre Dumas, fils, known as ”la dame aux Camélias.”
Two years before the world discovered la Traviata, Verdi had performed another opera adaptation inspired from yet another French literary work: Rigoletto, directly based on a novel of Victor Hugo.
Things didn’t go very smoothly right away for Verdi’s Rigoletto, since the original Hugo work in question, facetiously titled “Le roi s’amuse” (“The King Has Fun“, sometimes known in English as “The King’s Fool“), was deemed quite controversial from the outset…
Although Victor Hugo had already set the stage of his roman (novel) to be taking place several centuries before, back in the times of French King François Ier (in English “Francis I“), several censors saw the Hugolian work in effect as tantamount to a criminal offense known as lèse-majesté (or “injured majesty.”)
Indeed, numerous parts of “le roi s’amuse” -some openly referring to French nobles surrounding the King as “des bâtards” (“bastards”)- were interpreted as a thinly-veiled attack leveled against the reigning French King, Louis-Philippe, who, incidentally, and as you may recall from the still recent “Basta with Bastille Day” post, was the son of one of the key “hijackers” of the French Revolution operating at the behest of his British controllers. And since le monde a toujours été petit (the world has always been small), chief among those British “handlers” was the great-great-great-grandfather of the current owner of the (“French loving…”) Fox News channel, Rupert Murdoch! (For more on this important issue, read “Basta with “Bastille Day”! Why the Real French National Holiday Should Be June 20th!“)
- A “poire” (“pear”) caricature of Louis-Philippe: French King, and son of a key “hijacker” of the French Revolution, the Duke d’Orléans—launched for the sole glory of the British Empire!
In order to escape the tight reins of censorship held by the Austrian authorities who at the time controlled large parts of northern Italy, and be able to perform Rigoletto in the renown Opera house La Fenice in Venice, Verdi was compelled to shift the setting of his opera from France to a local and relatively “low-key” place in Italy: The city of Mantua. Mantua is famous, among other things, for offering a temporary refuge to Shakespeare’s Romeo, before his return to Vérone (Verona).
Verdi’s Rigoletto, based on Victor Hugo’s Triboulet, from the novel “le roi s’amuse“, is reminiscing of another “baroque” character of Hugo’s: Gwynplaine featured in “l’Homme qui rit.“
While the latter is known for providing the character basis of Batman‘s archenemy “The Joker“, the former can in many ways be considered as an early model of yet another foe of Batman’s: The Joker’s admirer and female partner in crime, Harley Quinn, whose name is either a wordplay on the French word arlequin, or the Italian harlequin.
After this politically-induced change of scenery, shifting from France to Italy, the portrayed womanizing French King, Francis I, “starring” in Hugo’s novel, was suddenly “demoted” to the rank of a Duke of Mantua in Verdi’s opera; the King’s Fool, the buffoon named Triboulet who was based on a truly historical character belonging to the French King’s entourage, turned into Rigoletto, the namesake of the Opera; and Triboulet’s secret daughter, Blanche, became Gilda, Rigoletto’s daughter.
Verdi’s ”La donna è mobile“, part of his Hugo-based opera Rigoletto
An evocative scene from French opera director Jean-Pierre Ponnelle‘s cinematographic interpretation of Verdi’s tragedy, starring the late Luciano Pavarotti as the Duke of Mantua
* En guise de conlusion (in conclusion): There is, in a manner of speak, an often unknown “French Connection” linking French author Victor Hugo to the technically “French-born” Italian Opera composer Verdi, with at least one of them inspiring a Batman villain, namely Hugo’s Gwynplaine, who was a direct precursor of The Joker.
And how about the “missing (French) link” of all the above with the movie Se7en…?
Courtesy to our French Blog readers who still didn’t get to watch the David Fincher movie and want to avoid a “major spoiler”, suffice it to say that far from being le maillon le plus faible (the weakest link), the fate of the Se7en character played by actress Gwyneth Paltrow (whose first name resembles Hugo‘s Gwynplaine, and was often slated as a Catwoman candidate), eerily echoes the not-so-happy ending of Blanche, the secret daughter of Verdi‘s Rigoletto…