Opera in three acts.
Libretto by Francesco Maria Piave, based on the play Le Roi s’amuse by Victor Hugo.
First performed in La Fenice Opera House in Venice, 11 March 1851
The palace of the Duke of Mantua
After a prelude, the curtain rises to reveal a wild party in full swing. The Duke, a dissolute young man, is deep in conversation with one of his courtiers, Borsa Matteo: he has noticed a beautiful girl in church every Sunday for the last three months and he knows that she lives on a remote lane and that a man goes there every night, but she is unaware that the Duke has spotted her. Borsa distracts the Duke by pointing out the beauties in the court and the Duke comments that Countess Ceprano is the most beautiful of them all. Borsa urges him not to let Count Ceprano hear him say this for fear that he might tell other women of the Duke’s philandering ways – the Duke responds by singing the great aria Questa o quella – he does not care who hears him, this woman or that one, they are all the same to him, and faithfulness means nothing to him; he will love as freely as he wishes.
In a dance, the Duke contrives to come face to face with Countess Ceprano, who tells him that her husband insists on taking her home – the Duke declares his passion for her and leads her from the party. Rigoletto, the Duke’s hunchbacked jester, taunts Count Ceprano in front of the other courtiers. After Rigoletto has left, another courtier, Marullo, enters with the news that he has discovered that Rigoletto himself has a secret mistress.
The Duke tells Rigoletto that Countess Ceprano is charming but that her husband is being a nuisance, so Rigoletto tells him to abduct the Countess at night and to get rid of the Count by exiling, imprisoning or even killing him. Ceprano overhears the jester’s comments and is furious, even the Duke warns Rigoletto that he always pushes a joke too far and that one day the anger he inspires will rebound on him. Rigoletto cockily replies that no-one will dare to touch the Duke’s favourite, but the courtiers mutter together that each one of them has some reason to dislike the jester and Ceprano tells them to meet him, armed, later that night. As they look forward to their revenge on the jester, they are interrupted by Count Monterone demanding to speak to Rigoletto. Rigoletto mocks Monterone, whose daughter the Duke has seduced, but Monterone swears that even if he is executed for trying to avenge his family’s honour, he will return from the dead to have his revenge on Rigoletto. The Duke calls for Monterone to be arrested and Rigoletto suggests that the old man is insane, but Monterone curses them both. As Monterone is led away under arrest, Rigoletto is strangely affected by the curse and does not join with the other courtiers when they jeer at Monterone.
Later that night, in a cul-de-sac outside Ceprano’s palace, Rigoletto, who lives in the neighbouring house, is on the way home when he is approached by an armed stranger. It is Sparafucile, who reassures Rigoletto that he is no robber, but an assassin for hire, offering to get rid of rivals for a modest fee. Sparafucile comments that he knows that Rigoletto has a lady in the house, and Rigoletto asks him what the fee is for killing a nobleman – more expensive than usual, is the response, and the fee is paid half in advance, and the rest on completion of the commission. Sparafucile explains that he and his sister lure their victims to their house and kill them where no-on can see. Rigoletto tells him that he does not need the services of an assassin at the moment, but he asks where he can find Sparafucile if he ever does need him. Sparafucile tells him and leaves, and, left alone, Rigoletto muses on the similarities between his profession and that of the assassin: he destroys men with his tongue, Sparafucile uses a dagger. Then he recalls Monterone’s curse, and in a savage outburst he rages against his mis-shapen form and the fate which has forced him to make a living as a jester. He explains how he loathes the sneering courtiers and tries to hurt them as much as he can – but when he is at home, he is in another world.
He unlocks the gate to his own garden and is greeted by his daughter, Gilda. She tells him how much she loves him and asks him to tell her something about her family – she does not even know his name. He tells her that she must never leave the house, and praises her when she tells him that she only goes out in order to go the church. Gilda pleads with him to tell her something about her mother, and he tenderly tells her that her mother, a gentle angel who loved him despite his appearance, has died, and that he is the only family that Gilda now has. Gilda is sorry to have revived painful memories for him – although she continues to ask him about his name, his friends, his relatives … . Rigoletto again asks her if she has ever left the house and urges her always to take care, murmuring to himself that the courtiers could abduct her if they ever knew of her existence. Rigoletto calls out Giovanna, employed as a minder for Gilda, and questions her about whether anyone has seen him come home and whether the garden gate is always kept locked. He urges Giovanna to guard Gilda like a pure flower and Gilda, moved by his love for her, tells him that she is guarded by the spirit of her dead mother.
Rigoletto hears a noise outside, and when he goes out to look if there is anyone there, the Duke, disguised as a common citizen, slips into the garden unnoticed. Rigoletto returns and again questions Gilda, and the Duke, in hiding, realises that she is his jester’s daughter. Rigoletto leaves, and Gilda confesses to Giovanna that she did not tell Rigoletto about the handsome young man who has been regularly following her to church: she has seen him, and she has fallen in love with him. The Duke now comes out of his hiding place and gestures to Giovanna to make herself scarce. He declares his love for Gilda and although she is at first reluctant and tries to send him away, she gives in to his passionate advances, telling him that everything he says is what she has been imagining him saying in her dreams.
Outside in the street, Ceprano, Borsa and the courtiers gather in silence. The Duke tells Gilda that he is a poor student named Gualtier Maldè, but before he can begin his seduction of the hapless Gilda, Giovanna returns to say that she has heard noises in the street. Gilda asks Giovanna to help her new lover slip out of the garden and left alone, she muses on the name he has given to her, Gualtier Maldè, in the aria Caro nome. The courtiers in the street see her and are convinced that she is Rigoletto’s secret mistress. Rigoletto returns and their first thought is to kill him, but Ceprano has a better idea: the courtiers tell Rigoletto that they are about to abduct Ceprano’s wife and enlist his help in the exploit. Unwittingly, he agrees, and when the courtiers put on masks, one of them, Marullo, actually blindfolds Rigoletto and tells him to hold the ladder. They actually enter Rigoletto’s own house, gag Gilda and abduct her, quietly anticipating the fun they will have on the next morning when they can sneer at Rigoletto rather that endure his constant sneering against them. As she is being carried away, Gilda cries out and Rigoletto rips the blindfold from his face and finds a scarf she has dropped – he realises what has happened and recalls Monterone’s curse, the curse of a distraught father.
A saloon in the Duke’s palace on the following morning.
The Duke, seated beneath portraits of himself and his wife, sings of his despair – the previous night, he had gone back to the house for one more glimpse of Gilda and had found the gate open and Gilda abducted, and he swears to be revenged on those responsible. Marullo, Ceprano, Borsa and the courtiers arrive and tell him with delight that they have abducted Rigoletto’s mistress: they explain how they did it, and how they tricked Rigoletto into helping them in the belief that it was Ceprano’s wife that they were taking. The Duke realises what has happened and goes off to see the imprisoned Gilda and explain his true identity to her.
The courtiers now bait Rigoletto, who has also realised the awful truth about the events of the previous night. He is searching for Gilda, certain that they have hidden her somewhere. A page of the Duchess announces that the Duchess wishes to see the Duke and from the courtiers’ sniggering responses, Rigoletto realises that the Duke is with Gilda and in his anguish he reveals to the courtiers that Gilda is his daughter, not his mistress. He rails against the courtiers for their cruelty and then breaks down and appeals for their mercy.
Gilda now comes out of the room where she has been hidden and Rigoletto in his relief tells the courtiers that he can now laugh at their jest. But Gilda asks him to send the courtiers away and then tells him everything – how she had seen the handsome young man in church, how he had come to her the previous evening and told her that he was a student, and how at the moment of her joy she had been seized and kidnapped. At this point, Count Monterone is escorted through the apartment on his way to prison; he stops before the portrait of the Duke and says that his plea for revenge has come to nothing, so the Duke can continue his philandering life unpunished. As he leaves, Rigoletto swears to the portrait that the Duke will indeed be punished, but Gilda pleads with her father to forgive the Duke for what he has done.
On the opposite bank of the river Mincio to the city of Mantua there is a half-ruined tavern. Rigoletto and Gilda are outside and, through the broken wall, Sparafucile can be seen inside. Rigoletto is upset that Gilda still claims that she loves the Duke and asks her if she will feel the same if she knows that the Duke has betrayed her. He tells her to look through a hole in the wall of the inn. Gilda watches, and sees the Duke enter, disguised in the uniform of a junior officer. He asks Sparafucile for some wine and a room and launches into the famous aria La donna e mobile, singing of the fickleness of women. Sparafucile returns with a bottle of wine and two glasses and then bangs on the ceiling with the pommel of his sword. His sister, Maddalena, dressed as a gypsy, comes in and begins to flirt with the Duke. Sparafucile slips outside and tells Rigoletto that his man has arrived – is he to live or die?
In a great quartet, the Duke swears his love for Maddalena, and she says that she has heard similar declarations many times and doesn’t believe a word of it. Gilda is horrified – he is using the same words to Maddalena that he used to seduce her, and Rigoletto tells her that now that she has proof of the Duke’s falseness, he, Rigoletto, will exact vengeance for them both. He tells Gilda to go back home, put on the man’s clothes which he has left out for her, and ride to Verona, where he will meet her the next day. Gilda begs him to come with her, but he replies that he cannot – he has work to do.
The Duke and Maddalena are still flirting inside the inn, and Rigoletto meets again with Sparafucile and hands over ten scudi – the other ten will be paid when the job is done. He says that he will return at midnight, and when Sparafucile tells him that there is no need because he can slip the body into the river without help, Rigoletto replies that he wants to do that himself. Sparafucile agrees, and asks the victim’s name – ‘He is Crime, I am Punishment’, replies Rigoletto.
A storm draws closer, lighting and thunder heighten the tension. Maddalena, who quite fancies the Duke and does not want to be a party to his murder, tries to persuade the Duke to leave, but he is determined to stay, and Sparafucile whispers to her not to forget that the job is worth twenty scudi. But Maddalena is rather taken by the ardent young soldier and now tries to persuade Sparafucile not to kill him. But Sparafucile has a contract and a down-payment, and he sends her to get the young man’s sword so that he cannot defend himself. Maddalena declares that she has fallen in love with the stranger and tells her brother that if he kills the hunchback, he can still have the full fee and the young man can be spared. Sparafucile is offended – he is not a robber or a bandit, he is a businessman and he has a client and he will not betray him.
Gilda has not left for safety as she was told, but is still outside the inn and overhears this conversation with horror. When Maddalena persists in her pleas for the Duke to be spared, Sparafucile eventually agrees to a compromise: if another customer calls at the inn before midnight, then he can be killed in place of the Duke. Maddalena is not persuaded – it is too dark and stormy for anyone to be out looking for lodgings, and a clock strikes half past eleven. She begins to weep and Gilda is moved by her tears – she steps forward and knocks at the door herself, calling out that she is a beggar and wants a refuge from the storm. Sparafucile hides behind the door and when Maddalena opens it, he leaps forward and stabs Gilda.
The storm dies away, and Rigoletto returns, gloating that the moment of his revenge has come at last. He knocks, and Sparafucile drags forward a sack. Rigoletto pays the second half of the fee and Sparafucile tells him the best place to slip the body into the river.
Rigoletto sits by the sack and gloats on his victory. Just as he is about to slip the body into the water, he hears the voice of the Duke, singing again of the fickleness of women. Shocked, Rigoletto tears open the sack and finds Gilda, barely alive. She apologises for not obeying him and explains that she loved too much and was prepared to die for her love. Rigoletto is distraught, and Gilda begs him to forgive her, and to forgive the Duke. As she dies, Rigoletto cries out that Monterone’s curse has come to pass.
In 1857, Victor Hugo saw a production of Rigoletto in Paris, and was amazed by the power of the famous quartet in the last act. He commented, ‘If only I could make four characters speak at the same time in my plays, and still have the audience grasp both the words and the emotions, I would obtain the very same effect’.
Other OperaStory articles linked to Rigoletto can be found on
- Verdi’s life and operas
- Victor Hugo’s life and his links with operas
- Piave’s life and his librettos
- The court of Francis I of France and Victor Hugo’s depiction of it
- The historical character of the jester Triboulet behind the story of Rigoletto
- Rigoletto’s job: the role of jesters at court
- The changes which Verdi made to Hugo’s story and the reasons for them
- Why Verdi chose the story of a jester and his daughter
- Verdi’s struggle with the censor over Rigoletto
- What makes Verdi’s Rigoletto such a special opera
- The original cast and the first performance of Rigoletto
and many more articles on Verdi’s other operas
© Roger Witts 2008