Spinal Deformities in Romantic Operas

Mattia Andreotti, MD; Gaetano Caruso, MD; Leo Massari, MD; Michele Augusto Riva, MD, PhD

Disclosures

Spine. 2018;43(22):1617-1618. 

The librettos of several of the most famous Romantic operas contain references to disease. These operas can serve as valuable sources of information regarding how spinal deformities were understood during the nineteenth century by physicians and lay persons alike. Original librettos of the operas "Rigoletto" (1851) by Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901) and "La Esmeralda" (1836) by Louise Bertin (1805–1877) were analyzed. In both operas, spinal deformities of Rigoletto and Quasimodo are a central issue. In detail, Quasimodo could suffer from von Recklinghausen's neurofibromatosis, while Rigoletto could be affected by severe adolescent idiopathic scoliosis. The plays are an expression of the nineteenth century attitude toward deformity: the hunchbacks are ridiculed and excluded from the society due to their deformity. Thus, they are forced by society to act as ugly and evil beings. Although both Rigoletto and Quasimodo show an intense love, at the end of each opera, they are defeated by loss of this love. This is an evident sign that, despite its willingness to tackle the subject, nineteenth-century society was not still ready to attribute success or human value to people affected by disabilities.

The librettos of several of the most famous romantic operas contain references to disease, including neurological alterations, respiratory illnesses, and psychiatric disorders.[1–3] Hence, romantic operas can serve as valuable sources of information regarding how spinal deformities were understood during the nineteenth century by physicians and lay persons alike. Indeed, these works may be considered crossroads between popular and intellectual culture, since their audience was composed of both the upper classes and the less educated.[1]

The most renowned opera dealing with spinal deformities is likely Rigoletto (1851) by Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901).[4] Its libretto was written in Italian by Francesco Maria Piave (1810–1876), and was based on the play Le roi s'amuse (1832) by the French novelist and dramatist Victor Hugo (1802–1885). In both versions, Rigoletto is a hunch-backed court jester, whose daughter, Gilda, was seduced by the Duke of Mantua, a noted lothario. Due to his deformity, Rigoletto is ridiculed by the other courtiers, and displays his villainy by mocking the husbands of the Duke's conquests. In Act 1, the famous aria "Pari siamo!" ("We are alike!") highlights the problems that the jester experiences thanks to deformity. In particular, Rigoletto conveys his anger against nature, and the society that has excluded him and forced him to become a wicked jester: "O uomini! O natura! Vil scellerato mi faceste voi! O rabbia! esser difforme, esser buffone! Non dover, non poter altro che ridere! Il retaggio d'ogni uom m'è tolto, il pianto […] Odio a voi, cortigiani schernitori! Quanta in mordervi ho gioia! Se iniquo son, per cagion vostra è solo" ("O mankind! O nature! You made me evil and corrupt! I rage at my monstrous form, I rage being a jester! To be permitted nothing but to laugh! I am denied that common human right, to weep […] My hate upon you, sneering courtiers! How I enjoy snapping at your heels! If I am wicked, the fault is yours alone").[4] Later, he describes himself as "solo, difforme, povero" ("alone, deformed, poor").[4]

Rigoletto is not the only opera to deal with spinal deformity. La Esmeralda (1836), a lesser-known opera in four acts composed by Louise Bertin (1805–1877), is also centered around this theme. Bertin had been partially paralyzed from birth, and was unable to ambulate without crutches. It is no surprise therefore that she focused on physical disabilities in her plays. In this case, the libretto of La Esmeralda was written in French by Victor Hugo, who had adapted it from his own novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831).[5] The story of Quasimodo, the hunchbacked bell-ringer of the Cathedral of Notre Dame and his beloved gypsy Esmeralda, is well known; during the Feast of Fools, Quasimodo serves as "Pape des Fous" ("Pope of the Fools"), but is tormented by the crowd when it is revealed that he is truly deformed, not wearing a mask. In the first scene of the Act 2, Quasimodo is placed in the stocks, and the crowd mocks him "Le bossu! Le sourd! Le borgne!" ("Hunchback! Deaf! One-eyed"), and casts blame: "Il fait aboyer les chiens dans la rue" ("He makes dogs bark in the streets"). In the Act 4, Quasimodo consoles himself, stating: "Je suis gauche, Je suis laidDans mon âme, Je suis beau!"" ("I am clumsy. I am ugly […] In my soul, I am beautiful").[5]

As regards identifying which diseases these hunchbacks suffered from, retrospective diagnoses can be difficult to make and support with confidence on real people, and the problems multiply when dealing with fictional characters. Still, it may be noted that in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hugo tells us that Quasimodo's deformity occurred in early childhood (onset 4 years) and combined deafness with extensive soft tissue and skeletal deformities, while sparing his strength, agility, and mental function. Based on these symptoms, Cox[6] suggested that Quasimodo could have been affected by von Recklinghausen's neurofibromatosis. As regards Rigoletto, on the other hand, in Verdi's opera, as in the original Le roi s'amuse by Hugo, he describes himself as being deformed when he married his wife. It is likely therefore that he may have been affected by severe adolescent idiopathic scoliosis; a lack of other features does not suggest a syndromic origin.

Whatever diseases these characters suffered from, Quasimodo and Rigoletto are both the archetype of all people affected by spinal deformities in their time, and both Rigoletto and La Esmeralda are an expression of the nineteenth century attitude toward deformity. Romanticism rejected the concept of beauty expressed by the Neoclassicism, and the ensuing aesthetic of ugliness led artists to approach the themes of monstrosity, horror and deformity. In both operas, the main characters are hunchbacks who are ridiculed and excluded from the society due to their deformity: a jester in Rigoletto and a bell-ringer locked up in a tower in La Esmeralda. Thus, they are forced by society to act as ugly and evil beings. Although both Rigoletto and Quasimodo show a hidden but no less pure or intense love—the first for his daughter and the second for a beautiful gipsy—at the end of each opera, the central character is defeated by loss of this love; Gilda dies while still enamoured of the dastardly Duke of Mantua, and Esmeralda the handsome Phoebus. This is an evident sign that, despite its willingness to tackle the subject, nineteenth-century society was not still ready to attribute success or human value to people affected by disabilities.

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