Page to Opera Stage: Hugo’s & Verdi’s Dangerous Fools in ‘Le roi s’amuse’ & ‘Rigoletto’

By Carmen Paddock

“Page to Opera Stage” looks at stories – real-life or fiction, old and new – that have inspired operas, and the ways these narratives have been edited and dramatized to fit a new medium. In this instalment, we look at one more theatrical play  – this one loosely based on reality  – that was later adapted to a (more heavily fictionalised) opera: Victor Hugo’s “Le roi s’amuse” and Giuseppe Verdi’s and Francisco Maria Piave’s “Rigoletto.”

Today, Victor Hugo is perhaps best known for his mammoth novels, “Les Miserables” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” foremost among them. The French author, however, was strikingly prolific during his 64-year career – and after, if posthumous works are included. The bulk of his writing between 1827 and 1838 was for the Paris stage, with plays such as “Cromwell,” “Hernani,” “Lucrezia Borgia,” and “Ruy Blas” keeping him busy and paid. 

But not all debuts were smooth. On 22nd November 1832 his premiering play “Le roi s’amuse” received only one performance before censorship banned its run for 50 years. With a title that roughly translates to “The King Amuses Himself” or “The King is Having Fun,” the work scandalized with its caustic depiction of 16th century monarch Francis I and his infamous jester Triboulet. Hugo had dared to imply that, perhaps, the god-given right of kings was not worth the ruin their caprices left in their wake. And in this fictional history, the jester Triboulet dared to plot the king’s death following the abduction of his daughter – an unthinkable move even in response to an unthinkable crime. 

Hugo was incensed by his treatment. Upon publication of the play in print, the author – never one to be lost for words – included an essay before the drama’s text decrying the precedent set by its theatrical censorship. Drawing upon the “Charte-Vérité” (Charter of Truth) of 1830, he argues that his case is one of theft and suppression, setting a dangerous precedent where the “right to publish” is enshrined.

Without doubt, if we consider only the little importance of the work and of the author in question here, the ministerial matter that hits them is no great thing. It is only a nasty little literary coup d’etat, which has no other merit than to not mismatch the collection of arbitrary acts to which it follows. But, if we rise higher, we will see that this affair is not only a question of a drama and a poet, but […] that freedom and property are both fully engaged in the question. These are high and serious interests; and, although the author is obliged to initiate this important affair with a simple commercial lawsuit at the Théâtre-Français, unable to directly attack the ministry, barricaded behind the Council of State’s objections of inadmissibility, he hopes that his cause will be in the eyes of all a great cause […] He will speak himself, if necessary, for the independence of his art. He will plead his right firmly, with gravity and simplicity, without hatred or fear of anyone. He relies on the help of all, on the frank and cordial support of the press, on the justice of public opinion, on the fairness of the courts. He will succeed, he has no doubt. The state of siege will be lifted in the literary city as in the political city. 

Unfortunately, he lost his battles against the censors and was forced to cover the legal costs. “Le roi s’amuse” did not appear again in 1883, two years before Hugo’s death. But its life was far from dormant. 

Giuseppe Verdi proved no stranger to controversy during his career. By the time he came across Hugo’s text in 1850, he had amended and obfuscated details in the source materials for “I due Foscari,” “Ernani” (from Hugo’s “Hernani”), and “Stiffelio” to suit censors and audiences – though in the case of the last opera, the changes did not prevent frequent withdrawals. Therefore, when the scathing critique and high melodrama of “Le roi s’amuse” caught his and librettist Francesco Maria Piave’s attention, he saw no obstacle too big for the operatic stage. 

To avoid the hostile reception of Austrian authorities in Venice, the opera was moved from France to Mantua. The king was demoted to an unnamed duke, and everyone got new names. The criminal siblings Saltabadi and Maguelonne were renamed Sparafucile and Maddalena, the jester’s daughter morphed from Blanche to Gilda, and the jester became the title character: Rigoletto. The opera was allowed to premiere on 11th March 1851 to sold out crowds and an overnight triumph. 

Social Niceties

In writing “Rigoletto,” Piave steals some of Hugo’s most poetic lines almost word-for-word, retaining a rhyme scene mirroring the French. Perhaps the most obvious – and unforgettable – is when the jester arranges his boss’s murder. 


Son nom? Veux-tu savoir le mien également?

Il s’appelle le crime, et moi le châtiment!


Vuoi sapere anche il mio?

Egli è Delitto, Punizion son io.

Along with the name changes, Verdi and Piave left many of the play’s most biting social critiques on the cutting room floor. Some sacrifices, however, appear to be more dramatically than politically motivated. In trimming a five-act play for a two-hour operatic run time, many named courtiers see their roles chopped or excised completely. Multiple scenes of court banter – including the lines giving “Le roi s’amuse” its name (“un roi qui s’amuse est un roi dangereux” – “a king having fun is a dangerous king”) – are gone. Rigoletto thus becomes the primary eyes through which the Duke’s actions are seen instead of one of the king’s many acerbic observers and commentators. 

As well as cutting down on soloists required, “Rigoletto” plays as more of a family tragedy than an incendiary commentary on absolute power. The Blanche/Gilda role is left relatively untrimmed, and she is introduced far earlier in the narrative after one court scene. Thus, the play’s text and opera’s libretto read quite differently, with the former emphasising witty repartee and the latter the fragile, secret family that comes undone through the Duke’s lechery. 

What’s in a Name? 

Verdi and Piave snuck some extra meaning into their central characters’ new names when appeasing the censors. Rigoletto may have been borrowed from the 1835 vaudeville “Rigoletti, ou le Dernier des Fous,” itself a play on the French “rigolo” – “funny.” The name becomes more and more a cruel joke as the opera progresses into tragedy.

Hugo’s doomed daughter Blanche – “white” in French – evokes purity and innocence with her name. Instead of opting for the Italian “Bianca,” the team chose to name their heroine Gilda – an Italian name that is derived through the old Germanic for “sacrifice.” Like her father, her name takes on a new meaning as she decides to offer herself to the assassin in place of the Duke. Unlike her father, her name is sincere foreshadowing rather than dramatic irony. 

The Curse

Lastly, Verdi musically and dramatically emphasizes Hugo’s motif of the wronged father. In Hugo’s first act, M de Saint Vallier – the father of a girl used and abused by the King – lays a curse on Triboulet’s head for laughing at a father’s pain. The curse, of course, comes to fruition, but it goes largely unmentioned in the play’s back half. Hugo might rely on the audience to connect the themes, but Verdi wastes no opportunity for a thundering musical motif.

The prelude of “Rigoletto” opens with a chord crescendo in the brass, which morphs throughout until the Duke’s party starts onstage. The chord returns when Monterone (the renamed Saint Vallier) curses Rigoletto, and then again at the end of the first act when he realises Gilda has been kidnapped (“Ah, la maledizione!”). Verdi repeats this tremendous motif and Rigoletto his anguished cry at the opera’s end, after Gilda’s death. Fate is as inevitable and inescapable as a king’s power in “Rigoletto” – and the opera’s power and poignancy has ensured its leading spot on opera stages around the world for the past 170 years. 

All quotes “Le roi s’amuse” are taken from the Project Gutenberg edition (in French only); translations are by the author. Piave’s libretto for Verdi’s “Rigoletto” can be found here in Italian and English


Special Features