Verdi's Rigoletto: From Khedivial Opera House to Cairo

Ati Metwaly , Thursday 12 Jan 2023

Since its first performance at the Khedivial Opera House in 1869 celebrating the opening of the Suez Canal, Giuseppe Verdi's Rigoletto has attracted audiences until present.



Rigoletto is being staged at the Cairo Opera House -- previously the Khedivial -- from 11 to 13 January. 

In Egypt, opera Rigoletto has a significant history. Rigoletto was the first opera performed at the opening of the Khedivial Opera House (Royal Opera House) on 1 November 1869, an edifice that opened only days prior to the opening of the Suez Canal on 17 November 1869. 

In fact, the state-of-the-art building modelled on the Teatro La Scala of Milan and the oldest opera in Africa -- which was burned down on 28 October 1971 -- was built on the orders of the khedive Ismail to celebrate the opening of the canal.

Some sources claim that it was opera Aida that opened Suez Canal at the Khedivial Opera. Those catchy headlines, however, are not historically justified, since Rigoletto marked those occasions. Aida premiered in Egypt on 24 December 1871 at the Khedivial Opera, followed by its grand premiere at La Scala in Milan on 8 February 1872.

In modern history, Rigoletto has been staged several times at the Cairo Opera House. Though this masterpiece is highly successful among Egyptian opera audiences, it is not included in the annual repertoire -- unlike Aida that returns to the Cairo Opera stages at least once every season. 

Nevertheless, since the new opera's opening in 1988, Rigoletto has graced its stage a number of times, with different directors taking the work onto their shoulders. Among the memorable performances were those in 2008 and 2016 with the latter seeing a revised mise-en-scene by Abdallah Saad. Its current staging is directed by Hazem Roshdy and features artists from the Cairo Opera Company, Cairo Opera Orchestra conducted by Mohamed Saad Basha, Cairo Opera Ballet Company, and Cairo Opera Choir. 

Composed in 40 days in 1851, Rigoletto is Verdi's outburst of creative musical energy, inspired by Victor Hugo’s Le roi s’amuse (The King’s Amusement or The King Has Fun), an 1832 play which proved very troublesome to authorities in France.

Back in 1850, Verdi wrote a letter to his librettist, Francisco Maria Piave: “I have in mind a subject that would be one of the greatest creations of the modern theater if the police will only allow it. Who knows? Have a try! The subject is grand, immense and there’s a character in it who is one of the greatest creations that the theater of all countries and all times can boast. The subject is Le roi s’amuse and the characer I’m speaking about is Triboulet."

In the original play the villain is a king, Francis I of France, who falls in love with Blanche, the daughter of a court jester. Hugo uses the jester to criticise the contemporary society and the king. Both the play's topic as well as the final scene where a corpse is on the stage in a sack, was called "obsene" at the time and led to a ban of the play in France.

Verdi insisted on keeping the grotesque jester, changing his name to Rigoletto. Though music afficionados who were not used to seeing repulsive looking people as main characters did not like the idea, Verdi replied to them saying: "To me there is something really fine in representing on stage this character, outwardly so ugly and ridiculous, inwardly so impassioned and full of love," Verdi wrote.

It took Verdi a lot of effort to have his librettist Piave follow components of Hugo's play. Finally, the opera premiered at La Fenice in Venice on 11 March 1851. The opera proved an instant success with aria “La donna è mobile” being sung on Venice's streets days on, following its premiere.  

The cast of the current performances includes Rigoletto performed by Florin Estefan (11 and 13 January) and Moustafa Mohamed (12 January), Gilda by Rasha Talaat (11 and 13) and Salma El Gebaly (12), Duke by Diego Godoy (11 and 13) and Amr Medhat (12), Maddalena by Nouresta El Marghany (11), Amina Khairat (12) and Laila Ibrahim (13), Sparafucile by Ezzat Ghanem (11 and 13) and Ahmed El Shimy (12), and Borsa by Ibrahim Nagui (11 and 13) and Tamer Tawfik (12). 

The evening will also showcase renowned singers performing on all three nights: Ossama Ali as Marullo, Ramez Labad as Count Ceprano, Reda El Wakil as Monterone, and Iman Zakaria as Paggio.

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