Melodramma in three acts (1851)
Francesco Maria Piave
based on the melodrama »Le roi s’amuse« by Victor Hugo
He had to change the name of his melodrama from »La maledizione« (»The curse«) to »Rigoletto« and change its setting to the court of a fictional Duke of Mantua, but he left the plot and its blatancy untouched. Rigoletto incites the dissolute Duke to constantly seduce and abduct beautiful women, treating their families with derision. He is then cursed before the entire court by the distraught father of a woman he has dishonoured. Rigoletto, however, hides his daughter Gilda from the shameless goings-on. Nonetheless, the Duke has his eye on her. When Gilda succumbs to the Duke’s arts of seduction, Rigoletto plans a deadly revenge. In the end, however, it is not the Duke but Gilda who falls victim to the plot. The universally known tenor hit »La donna è mobile« becomes a cynical code for failure. In Verdi’s first mature work, the trivial, the grotesque, and high pathos are all intertwined. The contrasts between garish banda music and expressive cantilena form an uncompromising masterpiece of tremendous brevity and sharpness.
At one of his lavish parties, the Duke tells the courtier Borsa of a beautiful stranger he has cast his eye upon. But first he dives into the festivities to seek companionship with Countess Ceprano, another object of his desire. Court jester Rigoletto mercilessly mocks Count Ceprano for this. In the meantime, Marullo tells the other courtiers about his discovery that Rigoletto has a secret love. To make his way free for the Countess, Rigoletto suggests that the Duke simply have Ceprano executed, a cynical suggestion that the Duke takes with humor, but Ceprano and the other courtiers demand punishment for Rigoletto. Now Count Monterone crashes the festivities and demands angrily to be heard. But Rigoletto only has ridicule for him, who was convicted of high treason, but only pardoned when his daughter offered the Duke sexual favors. Monterone curses the shameful shenanigans of the duke and his court jester before he is taken away.
Thinking about the curse, Rigoletto makes his way home and on the way meets the hired killer Sparafucile, whose services he declines. Instead, he enters his home where his daughter Gilda awaits him. She knows nothing about her father’s work, not even his name, and is only allowed to leave the house to attend mass, closely guarded by the housekeeper. After a conversation with her about her being his entire family after the death of her mother, Rigoletto departs again. In the meantime, the Duke has bribed Giovanna and thus gets access to the home of the woman he so desires. Gilda remains behind with pangs of conscience, since she has kept it secret from her father that she has seen a young man at church whom she has fallen in love with. In that very moment, he is standing before her in the shape of the Duke, who pretends to be a student named Gualtier Maldé and declares his love for her. Gilda is thrilled. Sounds from outside force “Gualtier Maldé” to leave. There, courtiers are planning to kidnap Gilda, whom they take for Rigoletto’s mistress. When he himself arrives, Marullo pretends that it is the Countess Ceprano they want to abduct. Rigoletto offers his help and only discovers the deception when it is too late and Gilda is already gone.
The next morning, the Duke is deeply concerned, because when he returned to Gilda last night he was unable to find her. His worries are assuaged when the courtiers report that they have abducted Gilda to the palace. The Duke rushes to meet her. Rigoletto also suspects that Gilda is at the palace and looks for her. He initially pretends indifference in front of the courtiers gloating maliciously. But when a page is denied entry to the Duke’s room, he knows that Gilda is to be found there. In despair, he pleads for her to be released. Finally, Gilda emerges from the room, throws herself into his father’s arms and admits everything. When Monterone is led past on the way to the dungeon, complaining about the ineffectiveness of his curse, Rigoletto makes the decision to force the Duke to pay for the defilement of his daughter.
Despite everything, Gilda still loves the Duke. At the dive where Sparafucile is holed up, Rigoletto wants to show his daughter the Duke’s real face. Gilda is forced to watch how the Duke has his fun with Sparafucile’s sister Maddalena. Finally, her father insists that she leave town; he will follow later. Rigoletto plans with Sparafucile the murder of the Duke: at midnight, he will personally take the corpse and sink it in the river. Because of an impending storm, the Duke decides to spend the night at Sparafucile’s. Gilda returns, despite their agreed plan, and hears how Maddalena tries to convince her brother to spare the Duke’s life. Sparafucile then declares himself ready to kill the next stranger instead of the Duke and to hand that body to Rigoletto in a sack, if somebody comes. Gilda decides to sacrifice herself for the Duke. When a brief while later Rigoletto picks up the sack with the body to celebrate his triumph, the singing of the Duke from a distance perplexes him. To his horror, he finds the gravely injured Gilda in the sack, she then dies in his arms. Rigoletto is forced to realize that Monterone’s curse has now befallen him.