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Semi-staged performance of Verdi’s Rigoletto by the Pacific Symphony. April 20, 22, & 25.

To millions of fans, Victor Hugo is the author of Les Misérables, the blockbuster political novel first published in France in 1862. But fewer know that his play Le roi s’amuse, written a decade earlier, is equally relevant to today’s audiences—perhaps even more so. With its deliberately suggestive title (“The King Amuses Himself”) and horrifying view of bad behavior in a royal court, this play proved so scandalous that it was shut down by censors after just one performance in Paris—even though the ruler depicted in it reigned more than three centuries earlier.

WHAT: Verdi’s Rigoletto. Semi-staged performance of the opera by the Pacific Symphony conducted by Carl St. Clair.

WHEN: April 20, 22, 25

WHERE: Segerstrom Concert Hall, Costa Mesa, CA

Photo of Stephen Powell
Stephen Powell, who will sing the title role in Rigoletto.

Reimagined in a medieval Italian dukedom, Le roi s’amuse serves as the basis for Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto, an opera that is supremely musical but unflinchingly frank in its view of political corruption. Its outlook can be summed up in the expression “Fish stinks from the head down.” And even if you don’t know that particular version of the old adage, you’ve probably heard something like it and can surmise what it means: that moral corruption at the top makes its way throughout an organization.

Does moral character really matter in a political leader? Or is executive competence all that counts? Verdi’s position is clear. In Mantua, where the opera takes place, the medieval duke’s personal immorality ruins the lives of those around him while he enjoys his libertinism with impunity. In his court, most everyone just goes along to get along. As characters in a drama, the Duke’s courtiers are vivid and surprisingly modern. You may not sympathize with them, but you most certainly know them.

Dating from 1850, when Giuseppe Verdi was 37, Rigoletto is arguably the opera that announced him as the dominant musical genius of the 19th Century in Italy. It is daringly innovative, departing from the bel canto operatic traditions that informed his earlier operas such as Ernani and Nabucco. And it is so full of gorgeous music—thrilling solo arias, glorious ensembles, and compelling orchestral passages—that it’s tempting to sit back and simply lose ourselves in beautiful sound. If that seems appealing, here’s a word of advice:

Don’t. Instead, enjoy Rigoletto as you would a great movie: Look and think as you listen.

CAST:   Stephen Powell, Rigoletto

Alisa Jordheim, Gilda

Santiago Ballerini, Duke of Mantua

Peter Volpe, Sparafucile

Alissa Anderson, Maddalena

Tickets and information: Pacificsymphony.org