Rape, Gilda, or what’s in a name

I just had a very thoughtful post on my Tumblr dash, with the taunting title “Was Gilda Legitimately Raped: What We Talk About When We Talk About Operatic Relevancy.” So I will just toss in my two cents there. Give the original post a read; it is highly recommendable.

I may quote:

If we recognize that Gilda is sexually excited in Caro Nome, we can appreciate the complexity of Tutte Le Feste. The Duke has just raped Gilda. She returns to her father and sings an aria about how she feels responsible for the assault; she probably thinks that her sexual exploration earlier in the opera was some twisted form of consent. But we know better. We know that arousal and earlier compliance are not firm markers of consent.

Wait. Do we know that?

Paul Ryan and Todd Akin don’t know that. In 2011, they tried to define “forcible rape” in order to deny date rape victims access to abortions. Todd Akin’s infamous “legitimate rape” comment implied that a woman’s level of arousal defined the “legitimacy” of her rape. And, most recently, the Steubenville survivor was put through a national victim-blaming circus just to get her rapists indicted.

Another excerpt:

Now I am going to tell you something that may or may not BLOW YOUR MIND.


You sure?

Gilda’s masturbating in that aria.

Do you need a minute? Take a minute.

Firstly, I don’t find the idea that Gilda is masturbating in the “Caro nome” is far-fetched in the slightest. Yet, I would prefer to put it differently; it displays sensuality, a freshly awakened thread in Gilda, and yes, the way Verdi constructs the aria, the phrasing, everything, describes an orgasmic experience. Why I am so cautious about it is that for me there is no need to picture Gilda with her hands in her crotch; the encounter with the duke makes her happy on more than just a sexual level, so to reduce it to the sexual component would almost profane it, in my humble opinion, even if I am not opposed to the idea, as long as it doesn’t stay the only one.

I have a mind-boggler of a different kind for you, concerning the last scene, “Lassú in cielo”. The mortal wound is only a symbol and an amplification of her lost virginity, ever thought about it? It cannot be undone, it cannot be unmade, it is fatal, just as her death in society would be after the events became public.

What’s in a name?

Yet, there is more to the “Caro nome” than just watching Gilda getting off. As opera isn’t p*rn, the question is rather the “Why?” I want a good reason for any sex happening, and if it is a hot vocal solo, just as I want a justification for every scene. If it is superfluous, the composer wouldn’t have left it in. In Verdi’s case the reason for the aria “Caro nome” is not only to show that Gilda is sexually aroused, or that Verdi happened to come up with a great melody. For me, the reason for the aria is in its name already, because it is one of the reasons why she falls in love in the first place. It is all in a name. Remember the scene before, where she pesters Rigoletto about her name?

Voi sospirate! che v’ange tanto?
Lo dite a questa povera figlia.
Se v’ha mistero, per lei sia franto:
ch’ella conosca la sua famiglia.

Tu non ne hai.

Qual nome avete?

A te che importa?

Se non volete
di voi parlarmi…

She wants her real name, her surname; she has never been told. What is in a name? A name is synonymous for one’s identity. The duke comes along and gives Gilda – a name. Gaultier Maldé. It is fake, yet she clings onto the name as if it was a holy relic; the “Caro nome” is spun around it. She has been given what she most desires at that moment – an identity; would they get together, and marry, she would bear his name, and get an identity. Of course we facepalm just a little, knowing that the duke is lying, but we understand her desire to know who she is.

The opera “Rigoletto” might as well be called “Gilda,” because she shows the biggest character development. From pure innocence in every way she proceeds to martyrdom. All along the way, nothing is good, or will lead to any good.

However, let me get back to the original post.


One great thing about Rigoletto – apart from so many other things – is that it is social-critical on so many levels. There are in fact three different societies there, and yet different systems of values.

One society is the one at the court, which the duke completely sees through and plays with at all times. With how much bravura he does that becomes evident already in the very first scene, when he picks up Mrs. Ceprano’s lines and adds some more – irrestistable. He knows the rules, but they don’t apply to him. So this society and its mechanics is actually the first one perused by the duke. A married woman like Mrs. Ceprano (who is not the brightest, as her lines suggest – it is perfection how many character traits Verdi can put into the meleodic line of “Seguire lo sposo m’è forza a Ceprano”) is not an easy target. She may be not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but she is an adult, experienced in society, and married. This swift encounter also serves to sort out the argument that Gilda is simply a little dumb before the opera is even in full swing. No, she isn’t; others, and different callibers already have fallen to the charm of the duke.

Then there is the society of Sparafucile and his sister Maddalena, the thieves and whores subculture, so to speak. The duke uses and peruses them as well. Peruses because he uses his love declaration “Bella figlia” in a manipulative way, of course. He plays to get what he wants, unconsciously leading Maddalena into doing what she never intended to – to kill a girl. (I didn’t say this was necessarily greater a crime than killing the first guy who happens to be knocking at the door.) It might seem that Maddalena has the upper hand; she doesn’t say she is in love, she just tells her brother that the duke was so pretty, but the duke’s charm works its magic nevertheless.

And now there is Gilda, her father and Giovanna living in a little society of their own.

How do those three societies react to the rape, or would if they knew about it? Society one would shrug, as Gilda is from a different class. She is prey, the duke is the hunter. The duke won’t face any consequences there; they even aid him in his plan. (Which ends up in one of the most heartbreaking arias of Rigoletto, just by the way, when his cursing “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata,” makes way to the “Miei signori.. perdono, pietate…,” and he even goes as far as humilating himself.)

I choose this rendition as an excerpt, because I like the staging in particular:

Society two: Sparafucile and Maddalena would utter a brief “damn,” maybe, but otherwise wouldn’t care as well. They would rather put the blame on Gilda, accusing her of being too gullible – which is in fact the result of her upbringing.

Rigoletto? What lifts him from merely sympathetic to someone one just cannot blame for anything is the way he reacts when he finds Gilda after the duke abducted her. He doesn’t blame her, he doesn’t slap her, he is all like “mia Gilda …” All his hate is directed towards the duke, even at the first moments. He knows she is not to blame. Furthermore, he is reflected, and proceeds to try and lift the veil from her eyes. It’s no avail though; Gilda is in love, and goes to sacrifice herself – an act of pure martyrdom. Rigoletto still loves her, he never puts any distance between them.

Is it rape? That’s the question

I say yes. But it is more than just that. Let’s splice this up. Before a court, it would matter if Gilda had come with the duke when he and his “razza dannata” comes and rapes her in the ancient sense of the word. I have seen different stagings there, and they are all valid. Then, did she agree to have sex? If yes, other matters do hardly count before a court. Lying, false pretence, everything else has little chance to stand there. So, a modern court – would they convict the duke? Maybe. The public? Well, take a look at Berlusconi.

In a moral assessment, the duke is lying, manipulative, and what is aggravating: He pursues his scheme for months. “Da tre mesi ogni festa.” He is a dick, to say the slightest, but I would claim that he is not even evil. He is something that happens to people; I tend to see him as amoral rather than immoral. Standards of behaviour he tends to just ignore, and maybe his court entourage even secretly or openly admires him for it.

I like complex solutions, not simple ones. So what if she agreed to come with him? This strips what happens from anything that would stand before court. Yet, the deceit, the lie, the pretence remain. To exempt the duke from anything, or call what he does “legitimate” in any way ” is soooooo off. There is no legitimate rape, just as war is not legitimate murder. It’s organized murder, at its best. Gilda is in love, she wants to hug, and cuddle, and have sex too, and wants to be with the man she loves. She didn’t sign for a one-night stand. The duke exploits her, as he exploits everyone else. He is a pure hedonist.

What isn’t a potential mitigating circumstance, but another interesting question is whether the duke is in love with Gilda. Perceptions on this vary. The crunching scene in this is the aria “Parmi veder le lagrime.” How is the tenor going to do it? Is his emotional outbreak ironical or serious? I heard Verdi added this scene in order to make the duke seem less unsympathic. Singers tend to know that and play with the idea that he is faking there. Why he isn’t serious? The biggest argument for the theory that he is faking is  the scene at Sparafucile’s later – the one Gilda also gets to witness. He is showing there, vividly, that he doesn’t take it all too much to heart, to say the slightest. He’s not doing a revenge-f*ck there, to cure a broken heart, he is having “La donna è mobile”-having a good time-sex; business as usual.

I chose this rendition of the “Parmi veder le lagrime,” because I know for sure there that the singer thinks that the duke is faking:

Gilda, on the contrary, is in love when she sings the Caro Nome, deeply and irrevocably, with everything this implies. (Wikipedia is good on the symptoms of love sickness.) But as I said, this doesn’t exempt the duke from anything.

Who is to blame?

Rigoletto is a tragedy; and it is brought about by Rigoletto. The drama is that he wants to keep Gilda safe from harm, and by doing so, renders her completely innocent, and defenseless, and that of course, later his attempt of revenge backfires on them. The main theme throughout remains Gilda’s search for her identity, for me. She dies in the sure believe that her act of martyrdom gets her to heaven; she doesn’t bear any grudge. Her last thoughts don’t belong to the duke, even if his actions lethally affect her; they belong to her mother, and her father. Her death reunites them in her mind, because for Rigoletto she is going to pray: “Lassú in cielo …”

Verdi and his librettist construct the tragedy in a way you barely hate anyone. The duke just wants to have fun; he is a-moral, not evil. You can’t hate Gilda, as her motives are pure, and she is victimized throughout. You cannot hate Rigoletto, which is the worst. His own protectiveness killed Gilda in a way, just as surely as if he would have wielded the dagger. But is it his fault? No, he was just reacting to a hostile society, where a woman loses all her worth the moment she loses her virginity. His motives are pure – he wanted no harm come to her.

So whom to hate? Now that’s the tragedy. This unjust, superfluous death makes us want to find a culprit. The culprit is the world the drama is set in, and it hasn’t changed all that much since: That’s all the cortigiani, the hangers-on who comprise society.

I may quote from the original post that brought me to this:

We live in a rape culture. We live in a sexist culture.

Yes we do. The duke will have no disadvantage for his rape. The one highly spirited attempt to revenge him fails epicly – that’s why it’s a tragedy.

We live in a world where we see Gilda as an ingénue and a victim, but we don’t see her as a sexual assault survivor.

I do, but her martyrdom is not only based on a Stockholm-syndrome; it’s all there already in the madness of love at the first sight, at the “Caro nome.”

And the director can put Gilda in Vegas, or in Italy, or on moon, but we, the young evangelists, we are the ones with the power to start a conversation. Where does Gilda fit in the larger discussion of female sexual autonomy? Can we start a debate about how our government or maybe even our society at large treats assault survivors?

The discussion on that topic should never end, as long as idiots don’t die out who can say words like “legitimate rape” without blushing.


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