Working on Rigoletto during the winter of 1850-1, Giuseppe Verdi may not have realised it, but he was closing the door on one tradition of Italian opera and opening the way to new developments. Yet this mid-century turning point in musical history was perhaps disguised by the fact that Rigoletto — the first of Verdi’s middle-period masterpieces, a trio at the centre of his work soon to be completed by Il trovatore and La traviata — was also a piece dealing with several of the composer’s long-standing preoccupations. Even by 1893, in his final opera Falstaff, they would not be fully exhausted. Falstaff was most obviously bringing old Verdi back to a world he knew very well — that of inns and taverns — yet this theme had run through a surprising number of his operas.

His childhood and youth had been spent around inns. It was a family tradition to operate small rustic taverns, and the Verdi osteria in the village of Roncole near Parma, where he grew up, was like the Garter Inn in Windsor — a way-station for the hungry and thirsty — that features in the opening scene of each of Falstaff’s three acts. Nor should we be surprised to find drinking songs scattered around Verdi’s operas, most famously the Brindisi in La traviata but also Lady Macbeth’s ‘Si colmi il calice’ and the toast drunk by the French soldiers at the start of Les Vêpres siciliennes. It’s easily overlooked that Otello actually opens in a tavern and that the second act of La forza del destino takes us to a hostelry in Hornachuelos.

All these are surely a better class of venue than Sparafucile’s dilapidated inn on the deserted banks of the River Mincio, just outside Mantua, in Act III of Rigoletto. Evidently a dive of ill-repute, one of its rooms is used for drinking and another is occupied by a bed, so it’s little wonder that when the Duke arrives there he asks both for wine and the woman of the house.

This less than salubrious setting is thrown into even starker relief by the storm that breaks overhead, a scene that, as Verdi’s biographer Julian Budden puts it, ‘departs from all operatic norms’. Storm scenes had been standard and plentiful in Italian opera, but usually as preludes or interludes, and here Verdi integrates his storm into the action, so much so that it reaches its climax just as Gilda is murdered. Moaning wind and distant thunder and lightning are all part of the special colour — not only instrumental but vocal in the wordless chorus — in a scene whose design (in Budden’s words) ‘defies any detailed analysis, so rich is it in reminiscences, motifs and a variety of vocal and orchestral texture’.

The storm is preceded by one of the most famous quartets in the operatic repertoire, led off by the Duke’s ‘Bella figlia dell’amore’. Again, the quartet draws directly on the traditions not only of Bellini (‘A te o cara’ from I Puritani, also beginning with the tenor) and Donizetti (‘Chi mi frena’ from Lucia di Lammermoor) but also Mozart (Don Giovanni) and Beethoven (Fidelio). Verdi’s achievement is to characterise each figure so distinctively — the Duke in soaring lyrical phrases, Maddalena with light-hearted staccato semiquavers, Gilda by drooping, sobbing phrases and Rigoletto somehow binding it all together with more static lines. This is one of those moments that only opera can do: if opera was merely a sung play, everyone would take turns to be heard, but Verdi makes everyone sing at once and with conflicting emotions, achieving a state of emotional richness unequalled in other genres.

It’s not long before Verdi delivers this opera’s greatest coup de théâtre: the reprise (sung in the distance) of ‘La donna è mobile’. With its blatant vulgarity, this is the opera’s ‘hit’ number, but Verdi makes it dramatically relevant by signalling here that the Duke has not, after all, been dispatched, and that the sack Rigoletto is dragging actually contains his own dying daughter, Gilda. A more musically sophisticated tune would not have worked so well in expressing the Duke’s cynical indifference to the sufferings of his poor deluded victims. This is a ‘#MeToo’ tune.

The other famous number is Gilda’s ‘Caro nome’, which for all its florid vocalising is not so much a riff on bel canto tradition as a modern-leaning musical portrait of her state of mind. Weaving semiquaver fantasies around her lover’s name, in a lyric design that is endlessly echoed and embellished, this extended expression of Gilda’s powerlessness captures her essential passivity. By contrast, Rigoletto’s role is predominantly parlante — words are, after all, his weaponry and armour.

Verdi’s operas are famously characterised by their individual tinta, a colour (or colour palette) unique to each. Nowhere is this more instantly recognisable than in Rigoletto, where the dark-tinted score can sound like flecks of light in a Renaissance painting. The scoring is indeed special, for instance in the strange, phosphorescent blend of clarinets, bassoon, lower strings and bass drum that lends such sinister atmosphere to Rigoletto’s first meeting with Sparafucile. The lugubrious introduction to Act III is another example. It’s certainly true to the mood of the Victor Hugo play on which the opera is based, Le Roi s’amuse, which caused a scandal in Paris on its first production in 1832 and had to be withdrawn after one performance. And it conjures up the atmosphere of a libretto first completed under the title of La maledizione (‘The curse’), which led to trouble with the censors. Names and places had to be changed; Triboulet had already become Triboletto, and from there it was a small jump to Rigoletto. Verdi was working with a very experienced librettist, Francesco Maria Piave, and they had already collaborated on six operas, of which the first had been Ernani, another Hugo adaptation.

Even more than the composer’s apparent preoccupation with taverns, the big Verdian theme articulated in Rigoletto is that of father-daughter relationships. The opera is a drama of paternity. Rigoletto leads a double life: as jester to a licentious ruler and as protective father to a young daughter. The first he spurs on to debauchery; the second he keeps in cloistered seclusion. Such is the mood of the court that the courtiers assume the young woman locked up in Rigoletto’s house is his mistress. Though all the father-daughter duets in Verdi’s operas show tenderness, this is especially true in Rigoletto: their moment of reunion after she’s been released by her abductors is one the of the greatest father-daughter scenes in the whole of the composer’s output. It had been preceded by father-daughter scenes in Giovanna d’Arco and Luisa Miller, and anticipates Simon Boccanegra’s Recognition Scene — a rapturous platonic love duet that is perhaps the most famous expression of this father-daughter preoccupation in all Verdi. Would Verdi’s Lear and Cordelia have shared a duet like that if he had written his Re Lear?

It seems fair to use the phrase ‘love duet’ also in the context of Rigoletto, since the music is invested with passionate intensity, an intensity that also leads one to wonder whether Verdi was memorialising a long-lost daughter. Verdi never enjoyed fatherhood, but he did have two children, both of whom died young, with his first wife. The composer would have been no more than 25 at the time. His second wife, the soprano Giuseppina Strepponi (they married in 1859, having already been together for ten years), had during the busy and itinerant earlier years of her career acquired something of a reputation for handing infants through the turnstiles of foundling homes, and Verdi’s biographer Mary Jane Phillips-Matz has speculated that there was another daughter born in 1851 and delivered to one such institution, the Ospedale Maggiore in Cremona, on 14 April 1851, just a month after Rigoletto’s premiere in Venice.

Whatever the truth, Verdi was in tune here with fellow creators of the time. Parent-child relationships (and the danger of becoming an orphan) haunt the works of Dickens, born the year before Verdi. The other composer to give this theme equal attention was Wagner, Verdi’s exact contemporary: think no further than the central relationship in Die Walküre, between Wotan and Brünnhilde. Whether or not they could be said to be anticipating — subconsciously or even consciously — the parent-child theories of Sigmund Freud, the barely veiled musical passion here remains as modern as ever.