After a short orchestral Prelude the curtain rises on a magnificent room in the palace of the Duke of Mantua where a wild party is in progress; dance music is heard from another room. The Duke enters in conversation with Borsa, one of his courtiers. "It's time," the Duke says, "to do something about that unknown commoner." He saw her in church three months ago; she lives in a house at the end of a deserted alley and every night a strange man visits her; no, she doesn't know that he has been following her. Borsa admires the number of beautiful women at the Palace this evening, but only the Countess Ceprano attracts the Duke; that she is married is of no concern. Questa o quella he sings: all beautiful women, no matter their class, attract me.
The dance music changes to a graceful Minuet as the Cepranos enter to bid their farewells to the Duke. He is disappointed that the Countess is leaving so early and manages to lead her to another room for a more private conversation. Rigoletto, the Duke's hunchbacked jester, and the most hated man at court, enters as they are leaving and taunts the Count as a cuckold, mocking his inability to do anything to stop the Duke's seduction. The off-stage orchestra switches to a livelier dance, the Perigordino ; the jester leaves, perhaps to taunt Ceprano further or to make sure that his master is not disturbed.
The opening party-music returns. Marullo, a courtier, enters with exciting news about Rigoletto. "Has he lost his hump?" "Even stranger: he has a mistress!!" The Duke and his jester return, followed by Ceprano. The Duke wonders how he might have that "angel" of a Countess. Rigoletto suggests abducting her, while imprisoning, exiling or, if necessary, executing the husband. All of this is overheard by said husband whose anger increases with each passing measure; gathering around him the courtiers he tells them to meet him later at his house to plot revenge. The Duke chides his jester for his tendency to go too far with his jests, but Rigoletto isn't worried for he knows the Duke will protect him. This ensemble develops the various musical themes, screwing the tension tighter and tighter until it explodes in a furious coda.
Off-stage a voice is heard demanding audience with the Duke. It is Count Monterone, whose daughter has been seduced by the Duke. Rigoletto offers to speak for the Duke. "You have plotted against us, but we have graciously forgiven you. Yet still you come to rail against the lost honor of your daughter." Monterone explodes. He seeks vengeance for the insult to his family, even if that vengeance come from beyond the grave. Monterone curses both Duke and jester as accomplices in his daughter's seduction, but then turns on Rigoletto and, as a father, curses him Rigoletto is struck dumb: in the ensuing ensemble all he can manage to utter is "Horror!" Everyone else joins the Duke in condemning the Count's insult, as Monterone is led off to prison.
The scene changes to a dead-end alley. On one side is a modest house with a courtyard surrounded by a wall. On the other is the back entrance to Count Ceprano's Palace. Rigoletto enters, brooding on Monterone's curse. A sinister figure emerges from the shadows with enough information about Rigoletto's living arrangements to give the jester pause. As someone handy with a sword Sparafucile (from Burgundy, he points out) offers his services in case a rival might need removing; Rigoletto says he will keep him in mind if the need should arise and the assassin leaves. He knows, and we know, even if Rigoletto doesn't, that he will be back.
Alone, Rigoletto muses on their conversation. "We're really the same; he uses his sword to kill and I use my wit." Then he remembers the curse. He rails against a world that despises him because he is physically deformed and wants to deprive him of that most human comfort: tears. His young, handsome master must be amused and he is happy to oblige; but his master's court is filled with sneering courtiers: "If I am evil it is because of you!" A solo flute reminds him that he is no longer at court and that here he can become a different man. But, again the curse. He dismisses his fears as madness, unlocks the door and is home.
Gilda runs into the garden to greet her father. The banality, both musical and textual, of the start of their first duet, contrasts mightily with the novelty of Rigoletto's previous soliloquy. Father is terrified that daughter might have left the house: "only to go to church", she assures him. To calm his suspicions, Gilda asks him to tell her about her mother. In a new musical world Rigoletto tells his daughter how his wife loved him despite his deformity; that she died; and that Gilda is all he has left. In the minor key and with long sighing figures Gilda consoles her father, but she persists in her questioning. "Tell me who you are...where are you from...your family...your friends." In phrases overflowing with a nobility and a humanity we would never have suspected from his savage comments at court Rigoletto tells his daughter that she only is his country, his family, his whole universe.
But Gilda, like so many daughters, wants more. She points out that, although they've been here for three months, she has not been allowed to see the city. Distraught and suspicious Rigoletto summons Giovanna, the duenna who assures him that no-one has followed them home from church and that the gate is always locked. "Guard this flower of purity", he tells her. Gilda is touched by his tenderness and concern for her. Imagining he hears someone prowling in the street, Rigoletto rushes outside to investigate; the Duke slips in, throws a purse to Giovanna for her silence, and hides. Father returns and, again, demands assurance that they've not been followed home from church and that any knocking at the gate must be ignored - even if it's the Duke? - especially him! But it's time to go, and father and daughter (the Duke is surprised to hear this!) take a tender leave of each other. Finally they are musically united!
Gilda feels guilty she didn't tell her father about the youth who has often followed them home from church. Maybe, Giovanna wonders, she doesn't like him. Musical purity as Gilda says his beauty could well inspire love, while Giovanna finds inspiration in his generosity! In a kind of vague waltz-dream Gilda says that whether he were rich or poor, preferably the latter, she would love him. Her "Love" taken over by "his" voice! Surprised, Gilda calls for Giovanna, but she has tactfully disappeared. Gilda and the orchestra are greatly agitated, but not the suave Duke who swears he loves her and wants to marry her. Elegantly, yet lightly, he sings of the delicacy, the fragility, the transience of love and, therefore, the need to embrace it immediately. Gilda's ecstasy is obvious in her soaring lines and throbbing words. "Who are you?" she asks; " Gualtier Maldé, a poor student."
Giovanna has heard noises outside (Ceprano and Borsa are checking out the house); Gualtier must leave at once. The music speeds up and The Soprano and The Tenor bid each other "Addio" over and over again until he finally leaves after a high note!!
Alone Gilda muses on her lover's name which has forever been etched in her heart. Her aria, "Caro nome" is a perfect musical depiction of a young girl's dreamy infatuation, all sighs and tender fantasies of vocal arabesques. Her final words will prove prophetic: "I am yours till my final breath." (Verdi accents each syllable.) The orchestra replays the melody as Gilda, repeating his name, goes back into the house. By now the courtiers have gathered in the street and, because this is opera, can see, through the high wall, how beautiful is Rigoletto's mistress.
Rigoletto returns still brooding on the curse. He bumps into Borsa (remember it's operatically dark, so no-one can see anyone else except when they can!) who tells him they've come to abduct the Countess Ceprano and he can help them by holding the ladder. He's happy to oblige. Saying he needs to be masked, Borsa blindfolds him and also makes sure that his ears are blocked too. The courtiers set about their work singing one of Verdi's great choruses: revenge is so much fun and we will laugh heartily about it tomorrow at the court. Abduction accomplished, we hear Gilda, off-stage, calling for help followed by a victory shout from the men.
Rigoletto wonders why it's all taking so long, but eventually realizes he's not only been blindfolded, but deafened too. The orchestra moans as the jester finds a scarf dropped by Gilda; he rushes into the house, drags out Giovanna but finds himself unable to speak. Finally "The curse!" explodes from him and he falls senseless.
In the Palace the Duke is very agitated. The previous night a premonition brought him back to Rigoletto's house where he found the gate open and the place deserted. Who could have abducted his dear angel, the only one to whom he might have been faithful! In a beautiful aria he imagines her in tears crying out his name; he was powerless to help her in his dream and he is powerless to help her now. The courtiers arrive to tell the Duke they have abducted Rigoletto's mistress; the Duke is all ears. In one of those wonderful Verdi unison choruses they narrate their adventure, but it doesn't take long for the Duke to realize that the girl is Gilda. "Where is she now?" he asks them. "Here in the Palace." The Duke is overjoyed, not just because she's safe, but because now she will know who it is who loves her. He rushes off to join her.
Rigoletto enters pretending indifference but carefully looking for clues that might suggest Gilda's presence. "Anything new?" Ceprano asks; "No; you're just as boring as usual." He tells Marullo how glad he is that the chill air of the previous night has had no ill effect on him. "I was sleeping." "And I must have been dreaming...Is the Duke asleep?" "Yes." A Page enters with a message that the Duchess needs to talk to her husband. "He's asleep." "But I just saw him." "He's gone hunting." "He cannot be disturbed." Rigoletto knows the truth. "I want my daughter!" he thunders at them.
As the orchestra seethes with impotent rage the deformed buffoon curses the courtiers, "Cortigiani, vil razza dannata" , for selling off his innocent daughter: "what was her price?" he asks. The music becomes more pleading as he turns to Marullo asking him where his daughter is hidden. But Marullo is silent. So is the orchestra as Rigoletto's pride and defiance disintegrate. In the third section of his aria, with the english horn joining him and a solo cello providing the accompaniment, Rigoletto begs pity of these men and pleads with them to restore the only precious possession of his life.
Before the courtiers can reply Gilda rushes into the room and into her father's arms. Rigoletto's tears are of relief and happiness that his daughter is safe, but hers are tears of shame. With great dignity he sends the courtiers away and orders them to tell the Duke that he is not to be disturbed. On their way out the courtiers mutter that it's probably best to humor lunatics and children.
"Tell me what happened." The lonely sound of an oboe introduces Gilda's story of how at church she saw a young man and their eyes met. Last night he came to the house, told her he was a poor student and that he loved her. Then he left. Soon afterwards, a group of men abducted her and brought her here, and then she stops her narrative. It sounds as if Rigoletto interrupts her so that what happened to Gilda next can remain unspoken, but, in fact, Rigoletto's verse of the duet is a despairing aside: "I prayed that my infamy might not contaminate her, but now all is lost." In a breath-taking melody that recalls the final section of his aria to the courtiers, Rigoletto bids his daughter weep, and the violins weep with her. It's an extraordinary moment of sublime beauty in an extraordinary score filled with sublime beauties!
Rigoletto tells his daughter that he must attend to some business before they can leave the palace. Guards enter escorting Count Monterone to prison (remember him from the opening scene - the father who cursed Rigoletto?). He stops before a portrait of the Duke. "Since my curse has proved useless, Duke, you will continue in your happy life." "No, old man! I will avenge you." In the final section of the duet Rigoletto swears his revenge will be the equal of a thunderbolt from God. Gilda is horrified at her father's rage; she is also terrified by it because she loves the Duke.
We are near the river Mincio on the outskirts of Mantua; we see the interior of a seedy inn whose outer wall is in such disrepair that passersby have no need of a window to look inside; the rest of the stage is the deserted street outside the inn. Sparafucile is indoors polishing his sword belt. Rigoletto and Gilda are outside. Her love for the Duke has remained constant and she is convinced he still loves her. "Watch!", says her father. The Duke, disguised as a soldier, arrives and orders two things. The original libretto, conforming to the Hugo play, asks for "Your sister and some wine" which the censors modified to "A room and some wine."
The orchestra strikes up the introduction to what is probably the best-known of all operatic arias: La donna è mobile (Women are fickle). This is not an aria in the sense of revealing inner thoughts or emotions: it's a folksy song the Duke likes because it expresses, just like his Questa o quella in the opening scene, his attitude towards women and their availability. In the orchestral playout, which has some sinister stuff going on in the cellos, Sparafucile brings in wine, summons his sister, Maddalena, and goes outside to Rigoletto. "He's in there; do you want him to live or die?" "I'll come back later to finish the business."
The Duke now begins his seduction of Maddalena in the famous Quartet. Maddalena is far too street-wise to fall for any of his sweet-talking; Gilda is heart-broken by what she sees and hears, but receives scant consolation from her father who is brooding on his coming revenge.
In an unaccompanied conversation Rigoletto tells Gilda to go home, disguise herself as a man, take some money and a horse and leave for Verona at once; he will join her there tomorrow. While the Duke and Maddalena continue flirting in the house, Rigoletto goes in search of Sparafucile to pay him half the agreed amount; he'll pay the other half when he returns at midnight. Saparfucile tells him not to bother, he himself can dump the body in the river, but Rigoletto wants to have proof positive: "His name is Crime; mine is Punishment."
A storm threatens as Sparafucile shows the Duke to his room. For all of her laughing rejection of the Duke's flattering words, Maddalena now admits that he's quite handsome, and certainly worth more than they're being paid. Gilda returns in her male disguise, scared of the approaching storm and of her sense of impending horror, but determined to save the life of her lover.
Sparafucile throws his sister a sack telling her to make sure there are no holes in it because they'll put the body in it. Maddalena suggests they kill the old man when he returns: that way they'll get their money and the handsome youth will live. The assassin considers that a dishonorable betrayal of his professionalism; he suggests, instead, killing whoever might seek shelter with them before midnight, and a body in a sack is a body in a sack - who's to know whose body it is.
The storm unleashes its fury. Gilda knocks. The door opens. She goes inside and we see her stabbed.
The storm dies down, though the occasional flash of lightning brightens the darkness momentarily. Rigoletto returns to find the door locked: it's not yet time. As he waits he can't help but note the coincidence of a storm in the heavens and a murder on earth. Midnight strikes. Sparafucile brings the sack, is paid the balance of his fee, and offers to help throw the body in the river. But Rigoletto wants to savor his moment of triumph. And what a triumph it is! A mere buffoon has brought low a mighty prince; the river will be his grave and a sack his shroud. He starts to drag the sack to the river's edge. Suddenly he hears the Duke's voice. It can't be! His body is in the sack. But if it's not the Duke's body whose is it?
He cuts open the sack and a flash of lightning reveals his daughter - but she's on her way to Verona. Futilely, he knocks at the door of the inn: no-one answers. The body in the sack is Gilda and she is mortally wounded. She tells her father that she loved the Duke "not wisely, but too well". In heaven she will be reunited with her mother and together they will pray for him. She dies. Rigoletto realizes with horror that Monterone's curse has been fulfilled.