It is said that one picture is worth ten thousand words; in the picture above, the body language says it all, really. On one side of a wall in a well-lit room is an amorous couple: he, richly and flamboyantly attired, with an arm about her waist; she, dressed provocatively, looking flirtatiously over her shoulder. On the other side of the wall, beneath a menacing night sky and an inn sign, a lady spies on them, and listens intently with one hand raised in distress, the other arm held or even pulled by an older man. In the background there is a bridge over a river. This is the famous quartet scene from the final act in Verdi’s opera Rigoletto, which premiered at La Fenice in 1851. Liszt chose this scene as the basis of his Rigoletto Paraphrase. Hear the original below, with Luciano Pavarotti as Rigoletto:
How interesting that Liszt didn’t choose to feature ‘La Donna e Mobile‘, that famous, catchy melody which was only revealed to the tenor two days before the premiere. Instead, Liszt wisely chose the dramatic heart of the opera, involving four characters: the denouement scene where Rigoletto takes his daughter, Gilda, to overhear the Duke of Mantua flirting with Maddalena. Gilda is forced to face the reality of the Duke’s licentiousness, and all four characters express their different emotions in a masterly aria.
Liszt’s paraphrase is no less masterly. It opens with a mini-overture, using brief references to the main musical ideas associated with Maddalena – lively octaves – and Gilda – impassioned, sighing octaves and cries of pain.
A filigree cadenza, almost harp-like in its delicacy, precedes the entry of The Tenor; here is the melody sung by Duke of Mantua, in the rich key of D flat: ‘Bella figlia dell’amore’, heard in the middle register of the piano. Lightly strummed chords accompany, as they do in the opera. Then the ladies are heard; Maddalena’s empty chatter and Gilda’s anguished responses, leading to a climax, fff, and some interlocking 6ths in a descending chromatic scale – hmm…
Liszt follows Verdi’s harmonies, but when the second verse of the aria is reached, the RH and LH share the melodic material, while taking turns to wreath the phrases in pianistic decoration. Arpeggios sweep the length of the keyboard, chromatic arabesques swirl like curlicues, with dazzling, effortless nonchalance. And all pp – una corda, including the RH chromatic thirds…
Following the original aria, the texture now changes. LH accompanies the new RH octave melody – it is Gilda’s voice we can hear, and even the operatic dynamics are closely followed, with a sudden pp as the phrase descends. The material is repeated, but now the melody notes are doubled and quadrupled. [Note to self – relax the wrist …]
The piece draws to a close as the voices combine in rich harmonies beneath a chromatic halo. And finally – a brisk stampede of Lisztian octaves to finish. Exhilarating!
Here is Cziffra, and the score –