Mantua. 16th Century
Act I: A garden courtyard in the Ducal Palace.
The Duke describes his interest in a mysterious beauty he has seen at church to Borsa.
He boasts of his promiscuous attitude to women, illustrating it by making off with Countess Ceprano. Rigoletto, the Duke’s hunchbacked fool, taunts her husband the Count Ceprano cruelly, until he chased away by Ceprano.
Another courtier, Marullo, bursts in with the gossip that Rigoletto has a mistress! Rigoletto re-enters with the Duke, and suggests he abducts the Countess or get rid of the husband.
Overhearing this, the furious Ceprano plots with the other courtiers to take revenge on Rigoletto, who has variously alienated them all. Count Monterone bursts in, outraged that the Duke has seduced his daughter.
Again Rigoletto mocks him pitilessly. Monterone curses Rigoletto for ridiculing him. Rigoletto is left shocked and terrified by this curse.
Act II: Outside a town house.
The terrifying memory of the curse returns to Rigoletto as a professional assassin, Sparafucile creeps up on him and offers his services. Rigoletto reflects on their similarity and his life of jesting. Banishing his dark thoughts he enters the courtyard of a house where he has secretively installed his daughter Gilda.
Rigoletto is obsessed in protecting and sheltering Gilda from the evils of the real world and also from any real knowledge of himself. She must never leave the house though he makes an exception for visits to Church. He entrusts Giovanna, Gilda’s companion, to enforce her chastity.
After Rigoletto departs Gilda tells Giovanna of her unknown lover. The Duke in disguise as a student eavesdrops and having bribed Giovanna throws himself at Gilda’s feet in ardent courtship.
For the innocent Gilda, this is the realisation of all her romantic dreams, and, accepting her suitor at face value, she wholeheartedly responds to the ecstasy of first love.
When they are interrupted, Gilda is left with the Dukes false name Gualtier Malde to console her. Meanwhile, the vengeful courtiers, intent on abducting Rigoletto’s supposed mistress, have gathered nearby.
Rigoletto returns and Marullo showing him the key to Count Ceprano's house convinces him they are to abduct the Countess. Rigoletto is taken in, and joins with enthusiasm.
Too late he realises what has happened and remembers Count Monterone's curse.
Act III: A garden courtyard in the Ducal Palace.
The Duke, discovering Gilda is missing from her house, laments his loss of a true love. The courtiers delightfully recount their escapade, and the Duke realising they have abducted Gilda hurries off to conquer her.
Rigoletto enters and looks for clues to the whereabouts of Gilda. When on behalf of the Duchess a page enters looking for the Duke, Rigoletto reveals to the courtiers that their captive is his daughter.
A distressed Gilda runs in and the courtiers depart. As Rigoletto comforts his daughter, Monterone is taken off to be executed.
Rigoletto vows that he will avenge them both. Gilda tries to calm her father and still defends her lover, while Rigoletto’s only thought is of revenge.
Act IV: Sparafucile’s tavern.
Outside the tavern, Rigoletto and Gilda eavesdrop while the Duke sings of the fickleness of women and then starts to seduce Maddalena. Rigoletto is satisfied but his daughter is heartbroken.
They plan their flight from Mantua, and while Gilda goes home to dress as a man, Rigoletto contracts Sparafucile to murder the Duke before midnight.
Rigoletto reserves for himself the pleasure of throwing the corpse in the river. When asked for the name of the victim Rigoletto replies that he is crime and I am punishment.
Meanwhile, the Duke has charmed Maddalena sufficiently for her to try to save his life. Gilda returns and overhears Maddalena persuade Sparafucile to spare the Duke’s life and agree to kill the next traveler to arrive and place him in the sack so Rigoletto need never know.
Gilda making an ultimate sacrifice knocks on the door and enters. Rigoletto arrives and takes the sack containing the body towards the river. When he hears the Duke’s voice nearby he unties the sack, and finds his daughter stabbed and barely alive.
Gilda pleas for forgiveness as Rigoletto is left alone with the memory of Count Monterone's curse.