Personal Development by Means of Opera: Rigoletto

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Archetypal Possibilities in Verdi’s Operas, especially Rigoletto –

Starting out from the standpoint of Hermann Hesse in the Steppenwolf-Traktat that characters on a stage can represent parts of a single psyche, I began in the 1980s to look at my opera roles in this light. My thinking harnesses cultural history to the interpretation of opera, which can be studied, like dreams, to uncover the Jungian archetypal implications of the characters and their relationships and situations for an identifying audience member, opera director, singer or student. The goal is nothing less than the integrative development of the personality. I owe a great debt to Professor Robert Donington, whose book Wagner’s Ring and its Symbols was a seminal influence. I met him and talked at length with him about the whole theme of archetypes in opera.

Together with the other great themes of love and aggression, a transcendent death and personal reconciliation play a large role in Verdi’s operas. Many of them conclude with ‘paradise’ music which can only partly be explained by reference to nineteenth-century sentimentality or piety, or to human grief, of which Verdi had more than his share. It fuelled his creative forces over and over again. An important additional cause can only have been an unconscious identification with the archetypal symbolism of death: the loss of the power that an element in the unconscious previously exercised over the total personality, and its ensuing integration into the conscious; this integration can then lead to the overall personality’s growth and transformation. The music of the conclusion of Rigoletto, Aida, La Traviata and La Forza del destino speaks of this. Its positive, spiritual quality refers not only to an after-life purged of the unpleasantness of this world, but also to a renewal of the personality in the present life. It is unimportant to speculate whether Verdi was conscious of the latter symbolism. It is there and can be heard in the sublimity of the music.

We have further clues outside his music which point to an active intuition and a mythical awareness on the part of the down-to-earth composer. The conclusion of Don Carlos as he originally conceived it has affinities with the mysticism in Wagner’s Lohengrin. It transcends the political and personal aspects of the plot. The motivation for the composition of Verdi’s Nabucco rivals the inducement C.G.Jung received in a dream to the writing of his last book Man and his Symbols. As a young man Verdi had lost his wife and both his children within a short period. This tragedy left him for a long time in a depressed state; he had no interest in the Nabucco libretto when it was first sent to him. But at some point, he relates, it again came into his hands, whereupon he threw it in despair to the floor. It fell open at the text Va pensiero, whose comforting and positive message gave Verdi the strength to start composing again. In the same way as the passage inspired Verdi, the chorus whose text it is inspires us still.

The opera Rigoletto is all about the hate and destructiveness which develop when archetypal yearnings for love (the search for the animus or anima) and death (personal transformation) are stultified and negated. The destructiveness in Rigoletto arises from the alienation of its protagonist. The ego’s public image, that is to say its persona (Jung), can be represented for our purposes by the Duke, slavishly served by the court jester Rigoletto. The private ego is symbolised by Rigoletto as father. The mythical theme of the opera is the gradual substitution of recognition and integration for alienation and destructiveness through the mediating action of the anima-figure Gilda. As in a dream, the action revolves principally around the private ego: Rigoletto’s emotional reaction to events is paramount and shown in much more detail than that of any of the other characters. This constancy of the dramatic point of view makes Rigoletto so intense as mythical theatre; many other operas are more democratic in this respect.

Rigoletto initially keeps his daughter Gilda a prisoner, ostensibly to protect her from life’s dangers. His trajectory is from hard-heartedness and cynicism, via a blooming of compassion, to shocked understanding and potential psychological integration. He only discovers compassion when he becomes reconciled to his daughter’s independence and experiences empathy with her fate as a kidnap victim and love-toy of the Duke. His resolve to kill the Duke results in Gilda’s own deliberate death, the ultimate gesture of integrative healing.