Rigoletto Act 1
Scene 1: A room in the palace
At a ball in his palace the Duke of Mantua sings of a life of pleasure with as many women as possible. He has seen an unknown beauty in church and desires to possess her, but he also wishes to seduce the Countess of Ceprano. Rigoletto, the Duke’s hunchbacked court jester, mocks the husbands of the ladies to whom the Duke is paying attention and advises the Duke to get rid of them by prison or death. Marullo, one of the guests at the ball, informs the noblemen that Rigoletto has a “lover;” the noblemen are incredulous: They resolve to take vengeance on Rigoletto, who then mocks Count Monterone, whose daughter the Duke had seduced. The Count is arrested at the Duke’s order and curses both the Duke and Rigoletto. The curse genuinely terrifies Rigoletto.
Scene 2: A street, with the courtyard of Rigoletto’s house
Thinking of the curse, Rigoletto approaches his house and is accosted by the assassin Sparafucile, who walks up to him and offers his services. Rigoletto considers the proposition but eventually declines. Sparafucile wanders off, after repeating his own name a few times. Rigoletto contemplates the similarities between the two of them: Sparafucile kills men with his sword, and Rigoletto uses “a tongue of malice” to stab his victims. Rigoletto opens a door in the wall and returns home to his daughter Gilda. They greet each other warmly. Rigoletto has been concealing his daughter from the Duke and the rest of the city, and she does not know her father’s occupation. Since he has forbidden her to appear in public, she has never been anywhere outside her home, with the exception of church. Indeed, she does not even know her own father’s name.
Rigoletto leaves home and the Duke appears. He overhears Gilda confessing her guilt to her nurse, Giovanna: She failed to tell her father about a young man she had met while at church. She says she has fallen in love with the man, but notes she would love him even more if he were a poor student. As she declares her love, the Duke enters, overjoyed. Alarmed by the sudden appearance of a stranger, Gilda calls for Giovanna, unaware that the Duke has sent her away. The Duke then convinces Gilda of his love while masquerading as a student. When she asks for his name, he hesitantly calls himself Gualtier Maldè. Hearing sounds and fearing that her father has returned, Gilda sends the Duke away after the couple exchange rushed vows of love. Alone, Gilda meditates on her love for the Duke, whom she believes is a student.
Sometime later, Rigoletto returns preoccupied. Outside the walled garden of Rigoletto’s home, the hostile noblemen prepare to abduct Gilda, believing her to be the jester’s mistress. The men convince Rigoletto that they are trying to abduct the Countess Ceprano. They blindfold him and use him to help with the abduction. With her father’s unwitting assistance, Gilda is carried away by the noblemen. Upon realizing that Gilda was, in fact, the woman abducted, Rigoletto collapses, remembering the curse.
Rigoletto Act 2
The Duke’s Palace
The Duke becomes concerned at the disappearance of Gilda. The noblemen then enter and inform him that they have captured Rigoletto’s mistress. By their description, he recognizes the woman they abducted is, in fact, Gilda, and he rushes off to the room where she is being held. Pleased by the Duke’s strange excitement, the courtiers now make sport with Rigoletto, who enters singing. He attempts to find Gilda by pretending to be ambivalent, as he fears she may fall into the hands of the Duke. Eventually, he admits that he is actually seeking his daughter and asks the courtiers to return Gilda to him. Rigoletto attempts to run into the room in which Gilda is being held, but the nobleman beat him. Gilda rushes in and begs her father to send the people away. The men leave the room, believing Rigoletto has gone mad. Gilda tells her father what has happened to her while in the palace. In a duet with his daughter, Rigoletto demands vengeance against the Duke while Gilda pleads on her lover’s behalf.
Rigoletto Act 3
A street outside Sparafucile’s house
A portion of Sparafucile’s house is seen, with two rooms open to the view of the audience. Rigoletto and Gilda, who still loves the Duke, arrive outside. The Duke’s voice can be heard singing about the fickleness of women, describing their nature to be that of infidelity and indecision. Rigoletto makes Gilda realize that it is the Duke who is in the assassin’s house attempting to seduce Sparafucile’s sister, Maddalena.
Rigoletto bargains with the assassin, who is ready to murder his guest for money, and offers him 20 scudi to kill the Duke. He orders his daughter to put on a man’s clothes to prepare to leave for Verona, stating that he plans to follow later. With falling darkness, a thunderstorm approaches and the Duke determines to remain in the house. Sparafucile assigns to him the ground floor sleeping quarters.
Gilda, who still loves the Duke despite knowing him to be unfaithful, returns dressed as a man. She overhears Maddalena begging for the Duke’s life and Sparafucile promising her that if by midnight another can be found to take the place of the Duke, he will spare the Duke’s life. Gilda resolves to sacrifice herself for the Duke and enters the house. She is immediately mortally wounded and collapses.
At midnight, when Rigoletto arrives with money, he receives a corpse wrapped in a sack, and rejoices in his triumph. Weighting it with stones, he is moments from casting the sack into the river when he hears the voice of the Duke singing once again about the fickleness of women. Bewildered, Rigoletto opens the sack and, to his great despair, discovers his mortally wounded daughter. For a brief moment, Gilda revives and declares she is glad to die for her beloved. Rigoletto holds his daughter in his arms as she dies. The story draws to its tragic close as Rigoletto, his wildest fear materialized, lets out an anguished cry of “La maledizione!” (“The curse!”).