A ball at the ducal court of Mantua. The Duke has aroused the fury and indignation of the courtiers in making Rigoletto, a jester and a commoner, his adviser and right-hand man. The situation becomes more taut – the Duke’s advances to the Countess Ceprano inflame her husband’s envy. The jester mocks the Count. Furious, Ceprano vows revenge on Rigoletto; meanwhile the courtiers hatch a plot against the jester.
The revelry of the ball is interrupted by the appearance of Count Monterone, who appeals to the Duke for the return of his daughter but is cruelly mocked by Rigoletto. The Duke orders the Count’s arrest. Monterone threatens the Duke terrible vengeance for dishonouring his daughter and curses the jester.
Rigoletto is dispirited; his world has been destroyed by Monterone’s curse which could come upon him at any moment. Rigoletto ceases to “see” the present and is terrified of the future, thus paving the way for impending tragedy. On his way home late at night he encounters Sparafucile, a professional assassin and terrifying character who mysteriously appears “in the right place at the right time”. As if reading Rigoletto’s thoughts, Sparafucile offers his services.
Rigoletto is concerned at the fate of his beloved daughter Gilda, who lives far away with her duenna Giovanna. He begs the servant to take care of Gilda and let her go nowhere except to church as he is so worried about the Duke and his debauched servants. Rigoletto departs.
Gilda is confused; at church she met a young man whose handsome features enchanted her. Unexpectedly he appears before her. It is the Duke disguised as a student. He makes ardent declarations of eternal love, declarations that are absolutely sincere. His meeting with Gilda has changed the Duke – for the first time in his life a girl has loved him without knowing who he is, not knowing of his titles and his riches…
Alone once more, Gilda falls into a blissful reverie. At the same time the courtiers are gathering around Rigoletto’s house; they want to kidnap Gilda, thinking she is the jester’s mistress. Laden with gloomy thoughts Rigoletto returns home and meets them in the darkness. To dispel the jester’s suspicion one of the courtiers explains they are planning to abduct Countess Ceprano who lives nearby. Once again Rigoletto is drawn into a web of intrigue and agrees to help abduct the Countess. Forgetting about Monterone’s curse, he misses his chance to change his destiny and helps them kidnap his own daughter… Only when he hears Gilda’s distant scream does he realise the truth, falling into a chasm of despair and loneliness.
The Duke is deeply distressed – Gilda has vanished and all attempts to discover her have proved fruitless. His despair is genuine – he had been ready to alter his life for the sake of the young girl. The courtiers, wishing to cheer him, tell him of their midnight adventure – Rigoletto’s mistress is now in the palace. But the courtiers are unable to understand why the Duke has changed so. Why is he not happy and carefree as before? At last it dawns on him that the abducted beauty is Gilda, and he hurries off to his apartments – to her, the woman he loves.
Rigoletto enters, singing; he is seeking his daughter everywhere, concealing his despair behind his jester’s mask. When he discovers Gilda is in the palace he demands his daughter be returned but the courtiers are deaf to his threats and pleas. Gilda, leaving the Duke’s apartments, sees her father’s despair and humiliation and runs to him. Alone together with Rigoletto, Gilda tells him in her “confession” that she has fallen deeply in love with a young man and that the young man is none other than the Duke. Rigoletto, mad with fury and consumed with thoughts of revenge, does not hear his daughter’s pleas to forgive the Duke.
One month later. Sparafucile’s den beside a river. It is the middle of the night. In a pact with Rigoletto, Sparafucile has agreed to use his beautiful sister Maddalena to draw the Duke to his den. Rigoletto, having forbidden Gilda to see the Duke and prevented any chance of their meeting, brings his daughter here in the hope of making her hate the Duke and wish to exact revenge.
The Duke appears incognito. His meeting with Maddalena is that of a man wishing to forget his unattainable love and a woman who, unexpectedly for herself, fell in love with this handsome young man, so unlike any other. Gilda’s jealousy, Rigoletto’s hatred, the Duke’s loneliness and Maddalena’s fervent love are interwoven in a quartet that fully exposes the emotions of all.
Rigoletto sends his daughter off to Verona; disguised as a man she must leave Mantua tonight. Rigoletto himself will stay to pay Sparafucile for the murder and throw the hateful Duke’s body into the river. Thunder begins to peal. Maddalena, in love with the handsome young man, asks her brother to have mercy on him. After much persuasion Sparafucile agrees to kill the first person to come to the door. Gilda has overheard the conversation; she still loves the Duke and has come to warn him of the danger. Gilda decides to sacrifice herself for her lover. She bravely enters the assassin’s home. The storm passes. Rigoletto returns. Sparafucile is carrying a body in a sack. The jester is triumphant – at last he has been avenged! Preparing to throw the corpse into the river, Rigoletto is horrified to hear the Duke singing merrily. Cutting open the sack, his eyes fall on the dying Gilda.