The court jester Rigoletto is constantly provoking the young Duke of Mantua to new heights of debauchery. Rigoletto secretly hopes the Duke’s excesses will provoke a revolutionary uprising, paving the way for a new social order. His inconsiderateness and the power of his wit make him hated by all the other courtiers, but because he enjoys the Duke’s favor, none dare speak against him.
Act I, Scene I
An orgy is taking place at the palace of the Duke of Mantua. The intoxicated duke tells his courtier Borsa about a local girl he has been wooing, without revealing his own identity, at church. Having just had an affair with the daughter of the nobleman Monterone, the duke now finds his erotic interest piqued by the Countess Ceprano as well. Rigoletto ridicules her husband, Count Ceprano.
Behind the jester’s back, the courtier Marullo spreads the news that the “monster” Rigoletto has a lover. The courtiers scent an opportunity to bring the mighty jester low.
Without warning, Monterone interrupts the festivities to accuse the duke of dishonoring his daughter. But Rigoletto humiliates him, upon which Monterone pronounces a curse on the duke and his jester.
Act I, Scene II
In a dark alley, Sparafucile, a hired killer, offers Rigoletto his services. The unexpected encounter heightens the unease that has taken hold of Rigoletto in the wake of Monterone’s curse.
Rigoletto has hidden his daughter Gilda in a secluded house. To him, she is the embodiment of all his hopes for a better future. He conceals from her his machinations as the duke’s accomplice, raising her instead according to the ideals of the coming society with the help of his political associate Giovanna.
The duke succeeds in slipping into the home of the girl he covets, who is Gilda. Passing himself off as a student, he gains her trust and wins her love. Gilda hears noises outside the house and, fearing her father’s return, bids her beloved a hasty farewell. But it is the courtiers attempting to enter the house, intending to carry off Rigoletto’s mistress.
Rigoletto suddenly appears. The courtiers claim they are there to kidnap Countess Ceprano from the palace opposite. Protected by an impenetrable mask, Rigoletto joins in with them. Too late he realizes that he has unwittingly abetted in the abduction of his own daughter.
Inside the palace, the duke is dismayed over Gilda’s disappearance. His courtiers inform him of the abduction of Rigoletto’s supposed lover. The duke is overjoyed to discover the one he yearns for in his own bedroom.
Rigoletto searches tirelessly for his vanished daughter. Feigning ignorance, the courtiers torment him cruelly. Rigoletto soon sees through the situation, but the courtiers prevent him from entering the bedroom, forcing him to hide his despair and go on playing the fool.
Gilda sees her father in his jester costume for the first time. She tells him that she loves the duke, and that he was not responsible for her kidnapping.
Monterone enters with his daughter. At the sight of them, Rigoletto swears to take terrible revenge on the duke and make Monterone’s curse come true.
Rigoletto has hired Sparafucile to murder the duke. Sparafucile’s sister Maddalena has lured the duke into her brother’s tavern. Rigoletto leads Gilda there and forces her to witness the duke’s open flirtation with Maddalena. He then commands her to leave the city at once. He gives Sparafucile a down payment and promises to pay him the rest of the money when he is in possession of the duke’s corpse.
When the drunken duke falls asleep, Maddalena tries to talk her brother out of killing their handsome guest. Sparafucile grudgingly accepts her suggestion that he kill the first stranger to knock on their door that night instead of the sleeping guest.
Gilda returns, filled with concern for her beloved and for her father, and overhears their conversation. To save the duke’s life, she knocks on the door and is murdered.
Sparafucile gives her body to Rigoletto in a sack and takes the rest of his pay. Rigoletto is triumphant. He is about to throw the sack into the nearby river when he hears the duke’s voice in the distance. Inside the sack he finds his dying daughter. With her last breath, she asks her father to forgive her lover.