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Act I. During a feast in the Ducal palace, the Duke of Mantua confides to the courtier Borsa his interest in a young girl met casually at the temple; in the meantime he is courting the countess of Ceprano and expresses his libertine morals singing a ballad, while the court buffoon Rigoletto mocks the count of Ceprano. At the end of the dances the cavalier Marullo reveals to the other courtiers that the buffoon Rigoletto goes each night to the house of a presumed lover. Immediately they all decide to play a trick on the perfidious Rigoletto by kidnapping the girl that very night. The count of Monterone arrives accusing the Duke of having offended the honour of his daughter. Rigoletto makes jest of him. While he is being taken away by the Duke’s guards, Monterone hurls a terrible curse at the Duke and his buffoon. The scene shifts to a dark alley between Rigoletto’s house and the Ceprano palace. It is night. On his way home, Rigoletto is joined by Sparafucile who presents himself as a cut-throat of honour. Rigoletto sends him away, but takes note of his name. Once home he embraces Gilda, his daughter, while Giovanna, the girl’s governess, secretly lets in the Duke. After Rigoletto leaves, he presents himself as the poor student Gualtiero Maldé: he is the young man she met at the temple. Gilda is happy. The two exchange words of love, but the sound of footsteps makes the Duke leave: they are of the courtiers who quickly kidnap Rigoletto’s “lover”. Meeting the buffoon, they even ask him to join in their project, making him believe (after blindfolding him) that the person abducted is the countess of Ceprano. Only after Gilda has been taken away, Rigoletto removes the blindfold and discovers the deception: “Ah, the curse” he cries, dismayed.
Act II. In his palace the Duke laments the disappearance of the young girl. When the courtiers tell him about the abduction of Gilda to his apartments, he is happy and goes to see her. In the meantime Rigoletto arrives looking for his daughter and is mocked by the courtiers. When he learns that Gilda is alone with the Duke, he desperately pleads with the courtiers to give him back his daughter, but it is she herself who arrives, confessing her lost honour. Rigoletto swears revenge, while Monterone is conducted to the gallows.
Act III. On the banks of the Mincio river, Rigoletto takes Gilda in the vicinity of Sparafucile’s tavern, where the Duke in a new disguise is planning on seducing Maddalena, the cut-throat’s sister. The Duke’s new song leaves no doubt about his low opinion of women. Even Gilda, following the scene through a chink in the wall, realises how dishonest the Duke is, but remains in love with him regardless. The Duke’s effusions, Maddalena’s superficial sentiments, Gilda’s consternation and Rigoletto’s anger unite in a quartet. Rigoletto hires Sparafucile to take out his revenge. This is his plan: after sending his daughter to Verona, he will come back at midnight and himself throw the sack into which Sparafucile will have put the body of the Duke into the river. However, as soon as her father leaves, Gilda goes back to her eavesdropping and hears Maddalena convince Sparafucile to kill the first person who comes into the tavern instead of the Duke. While outside the storm rages, Gilda offers herself to the sacrifice, and, unrecognised in the darkness, enters the tavern where she knows that Sparafucile’s dagger awaits her. At midnight Rigoletto rejoices as he gathers up the sack and gets ready to throw it in the river, when in the distance he hears the song of the Duke. Incredulous, he opens the sack to discover his dying daughter. In the heartbreaking finale, Gilda reveals the reasons that made her substitute herself for the Duke in order to save him and expires asking her father’s pardon. All that is left for Rigoletto is to cry: “Ah, the curse “.
Rigoletto was the first of what is know as Verdi’s “popular trilogy”, followed by La traviata and Il trovatore.