Ironic Hit: A Close Look at the Duke’s “La donna è mobile” in Act III
Texts and translations to the below tracks can be found here.
A few minutes into Act III, the Duke sings a short aria so familiar that listeners might be forgiven for wondering if it’s a folk tune thrown into the opera for atmosphere: “La donna è mobile”—“Woman is fickle.” But the title alone indicates how integral this piece is to the opera and how much it reveals about the character of the Duke—no matter how often it’s performed, adapted, or parodied in other media. (See thesidebar Instant Hit.)
The Duke switches lovers without regard for the emotional wreckage he leaves behind. “La donna è mobile” uses irony to underscore his narcissism, as he voices his chauvinist view of woman kind. The catchy, simple tune is a perfect expression of his careless attitude towards life. At the same time, Verdi implicates listeners in the Duke’s moral corruption: the melody is so pleasant, so easy to hum along to, that audience members may find themself participating in this declaration of the Duke’s twisted worldview.
The tune is first heard in Track 46.
This orchestral introduction stops teasingly short, assuring full attention when the Duke first states his argument in Track 47.
He is in a seedy club, preparing for a night of pleasure that will see him behave precisely in the way he attributes to women: light, friendly, and false (Track 48).
Track 49 brings the first reprise of the opening argument, as if repetition were proof.
With the second stanza, the Duke extends his inadvertent self-description (Track 50).
Only in Track 51 does he actually express his own conscious thoughts: a man cannot be content as long as another conquest awaits. The audience, meanwhile, by now is all but humming the tune.
At this point Verdi comes up with a musical and dramatic masterstroke. In Track 52, we hear the Duke bring his song to a duly ornate conclusion, but the orchestra continues, loud at first, then softer and softer, until a single flute, accompanied by strings, carry the tune.
An oboe takes over, lulling listeners through Track 53, when suddenly Sparafucile’s bass booms out: “There’s your man,” he tells Rigoletto, pointing out the Duke. “Is he to live or die?” “La donna è mobile” plays on. Rigoletto falters, replying that he will return later. Only in this moment of hesitation, perhap seven of second thoughts, the composer finally lets “La donna è mobile” wind down.
Verdi tells the audience a great deal about the Duke in this two-and-a-half-minute aria. It represents a peak of hypocrisy, expressed as patently thoughtless gaiety. The composer reiterates this quality of corruption by having the orchestra continue to play merrily as Sparafucile broaches the question of murder. Then, by stopping “La donna è mobile” at Rigoletto’s moment of hesitation, Verdi suggests a resetting—if only momentary—of the hunchback’s moral compass. The jolly falsehoods of “La donna è mobile” wither in the pathos of this awful night. At the end of the act, the Duke is heard singing the tune offstage as Rigoletto realizes he has been duped and his own daughter has been mortally wounded. This short, happy song has become a rich musical mini-drama about the human capacity for evil. “La donna è mobile” can be heard in its entirety on Track 54.