Tragic Devotion: Verdi's 'Rigoletto'

ACT ONE begins in the palace of the Duke of Mantua. He's a self-obsessed cad, notorious for his indiscreet love life. We also meet the Duke’s acid-tongued jester, a hunchback named Rigoletto. He's notorious for his unrestrained verbal abuse of the courtiers, the Duke’s guests, and just about everyone else he comes across.

The Duke comments that he’s been watching a beautiful young woman from afar. He's even followed her to and from her home, where she’s often visited by a mysterious man. But for the moment, he’s got his eye on a local Countess named Ceprano. The Duke flirts with her openly, while her husband stands by helpless and Rigoletto makes fun of him. Outraged, Count Ceprano arranges a gathering of the courtiers later that night at his home.

The scene is interrupted by another Count, Monterone, who crashes the party to confront the Duke. It seems the Duke has had his way with Monterone’s daughter. Rigoletto mocks his fatherly outrage, and the Duke has Monterone arrested. As he’s led off, he curses both the Duke and Rigoletto. The Duke pays no mind, but the curse leaves Rigoletto terrified.

The next scene is at Rigoletto’s home. We can see both the walled courtyard outside, and the road beyond the wall. Count Ceprano's house is across the street. Rigoletto is talking to Sparafucile, a hit man, who offers Rigoletto his services. Rigoletto says no thanks. But he does know where to find Sparafucile, in case he wants somebody bumped off later on.

Rigoletto enters his courtyard and greets Gilda, his daughter. Rigoletto’s wife is dead, and nobody at the Duke’s court even knows he was married, much less that he has a child -- and Rigoletto wants to keep it that way.

Rigoletto hears noises outside, and leaves. Gilda confesses to her nurse, Giovanna, that she’s fallen in love with a young man who's been following her. That same man promptly appears. It's the Duke, disguised as a poor student. He's just figured out that the woman he's been stalking is Rigoletto’s daughter -- and now he's even more determined to have her. He declares his love, and the naive Gilda is thrilled. When he leaves, she adoringly ponders the false name he gave her, Gualtier Maldè.

Outside in the street, Rigoletto encounters the courtiers who have come to meet with Ceprano. They lie to him, saying they’re about to kidnap Ceprano’s wife for the Duke. Rigoletto agrees to help, and even agrees to be blindfolded in the process. But instead of going across the street to Ceprano’s house, they enter Rigoletto’s home, and abduct Gilda. Rigoletto has been tricked into helping them kidnap his own daughter.

As ACT TWO opens, the Duke doesn’t realize what his courtiers have been up to, and he’s afraid he’s lost track of Gilda. When the courtiers tell him what’s happened, he eagerly rushes off to be with her.

Rigoletto enters. He’s also searching for Gilda, and unlike the Duke, Rigoletto is afraid he knows exactly where she is. When the courtiers won’t tell him where to find the Duke, he’s even more anxious. His fears are confirmed when Gilda appears in tears, crying that she’s been "dishonored."

Rigoletto goes to her, and Count Monterone is escorted through the room. Rigoletto recalls Monterone's curse, and realizes that he's now in the same boat. In the duet that ends the act, Rigoletto vows to seek revenge, while Gilda, who is still in love with the Duke, prays that heaven will forgive his sins.

As ACT THREE begins, Rigoletto has engaged the deadly services of Sparafucile. The hit man operates out of a sleazy tavern, where his sister Maddalena lures his unsuspecting victims. Tonight, Maddalena has enticed the Duke into their establishment. Outside, Rigoletto and Gilda look on as the Duke tries to "seduce" Maddalena.

In spite of everything, Gilda is still in love with the Duke, and watches in pain as he flirts with Maddelena. The following quartet, featuring Gilda, Rigoletto, Maddalena and the Duke is among Verdi's most beautiful ensembles. As it concludes, Rigoletto sends Gilda home. He plans for her to leave the city, disguised as a man. Then he'll return alone, to make sure his plot has concluded. Sparafucile is all set to murder the Duke. At midnight, he'll deliver the corpse to Rigoletto, as proof that the job has been done.

A storm blows in -- with a spooky offstage chorus evoking the rising winds -- and Gilda returns to the tavern, wearing her disguise. She overhears Sparafucile arguing with Maddalena. The Duke has fallen asleep upstairs, and Sparafucile is heading up to kill him. But Maddalena is beginning to like the Duke, and pleads for his life. Gilda has been eavesdropping. Now, she decides to intervene and knocks at the door, saying she’s seeking refuge from the weather. Sparafucile agrees with Maddalena to let the Duke live, and kill this young “stranger” instead -- so they'll still have a corpse for Rigoletto. They let Gilda in, and Sparafucile stabs her.

When Rigoletto returns later, Sparafucile gives him a body, bundled in a burlap sack. Rigoletto kneels over it in triumph, thinking his revenge is complete. Then he hears the Duke, singing his signature tune in the background. He frantically tears the sack open, to see whose body he’s been given. He finds Gilda, barely alive. She tries to comfort him by saying she’ll soon join her mother, in heaven. She dies, and Rigoletto cries out in anguish, remembering Monterone's curse, as the opera ends.