Scene 1: A grand room in the palace of the Duke of Mantua. In contrast to the somber prelude, dance music can be heard from offstage as gentlemen and their wives circulate though the room. The Duke tells the courtier Borsa about the woman he has seen in church every Sunday for the last three months. He is impatient to bring his seduction of her to a head, and has discovered she lives in a remote alley where a mysterious man visits her every evening. Among the ladies at the ball is the Countess Ceprano. They comment on her beauty and the Duke decides he will make-do with her for now. Borsa warns the Duke that Count Ceprano may overhear them, but the Duke does not care, one woman is just like another and fidelity is detestable (Questa o quella — This one or that). He flirts with the Countess and leads her off stage. Her jealous husband is following as Rigoletto enters and implies Ceprano has horns on his head. He also comments on the doings at court and on the Duke’s seductions. An excited Marullo enters; he has discovered that Rigoletto has a mistress!
The Duke and Rigoletto discuss how they can get rid of Ceprano in order to leave the field clear for the Duke. Rigoletto makes several sarcastic and boorish suggestions which an angry Ceprano overhears. The jester’s master reproves Rigoletto for always going too far with a joke. Rigoletto just laughs; he knows he is protected from the hatred of the courtiers whom he has antagonized by the Duke. These courtiers decide to take revenge on the jester; they will meet that night to formulate a plan.
Suddenly Count Monterone bursts in. His daughter has been ravished by the Duke and he swears revenge. The jester mocks him with a mixture of buffoonery and evil. His lurching music depicts his own hunchbacked deformity (Voi congiuraste — You conspired). When the distraught father curses both the jester and the Duke with a father’s curse, the worst kind, Rigoletto recoils in horror.
Scene 2: An alley with Rigoletto’s house on one side and the Cepranos’ on the other.
A shaken Rigoletto enters, still muttering about the curse. He is accosted by Sparafucile a hired assassin for hire (his name is literally Shoot Gun), who offers his services to Rigoletto. He can have his sister lure any victim to his inn and dispose of him there. If Rigoletto has no use for his services just then, he can be found every evening at the same place. After Sparafucile leaves, Rigoletto broods that they are the same: both of them kill, Rigoletto with his tongue and Sparafucile with his dagger (Pari siamo — We are the same). He blames his own corruption on nature which made him a hunchback and on the sneering courtiers with whom he serves.
Still thinking about the curse, he enters his house to be greeted by his loving daughter, Gilda. She begs him to tell her about her family; she doesn’t even know her father’s name! He changes the subject. Has she been out? Only to mass. He finally says her angelic mother felt pity for his sorrows and loved him in spite of his hunchback. She begs to be allowed to see the city and is asked again if she ever goes out. She lies and says no. Terrified that the courtiers who hate him will discover her existence, Rigoletto begs her to keep her promise and stay home. He summons Giovanna, her companion, and asks if she locks the door every night, admonishing her to keep his daughter safe (Veglia, o donna — Watch woman).
Thinking he hears something, he goes out to the street giving the disguised Duke a chance to sneak in and hide. (He slips Giovanna a purse to keep her silent.) To his surprise, he recognizes Rigoletto and realizes it is the jester’s daughter upon whom he has designs. When Rigoletto leaves, Gilda regrets that she has lied to her father by not telling him of the handsome young man who has followed her to church. Although he seems noble, she would prefer a poor man (Signor nè principe — Neither nobleman nor prince). The duke emerges from hiding and ardently declares his love (È il sol dell’anima— [Love] is the sunshine of the soul). He tells her he is a poor student named Gualtier Maldè. As she confesses her love for him, the sound of the conspirators in the street makes her beg him to leave. They sing a long and fond farewell (Addio, addio).
Left alone, Gilda rapturously thinks of her suitor’s name (Caro nome — Dear name). She can be seen by the masked conspirators on the street who admire her beauty. Suddenly Rigoletto appears, called back by new fears and still thinking of the curse. Identifying themselves, the courtiers approach him and ask him to help abduct the Countess Ceprano. He agrees and asks for a mask of his own. While putting it on they manage to blindfold him. He is told to hold the ladder while they do the abduction, and they gloat that they will now have their revenge on their torturer. As they drag the terrified Gilda away, she drops her scarf. Wondering what is happening, Rigoletto discovers the blindfold and tears it off to find the open door and Gilda’s scarf. He utters an anguished La maledizione! —The curse!
A room in the palace.
The Duke has been to Rigoletto’s house and found the door open and Gilda gone. He is distressed, mostly for his loss (Ella mi fu rapita — She was stolen from me), but then thinks of her tears (Parmi veder le lagrime — I seem to see those tears). When the courtiers come to tell him of the abduction, he realizes the victim is Gilda and rushes off to ‘comfort’ her (Possente amor — Powerful love).
Rigoletto appears, feigning nonchalance and still playing the fool, but furtively looking around for signs of Gilda (This is the first time, the courtiers realize Gilda is the jester’s daughter rather than his mistress.) Realizing that the abducted woman is his daughter and that she is with the Duke, the jester first asks for her return. When this is of no avail, he falls to weeping and begs to know where she is. Finally, he abjectly throws off the fool and begs them to restore his daughter to him (Cortigiani — Courtiers).
Gilda rushes into the room and throws herself into her father’s arms. She confesses all to him (Tutte le feste al tempio — Every Sunday in church). He comforts her (Piangi fanciulla — Weep child). Monterone is led across the stage on his way to prison, distraught because, in spite of his curse, the Duke remains unscathed. Rigoletto swears that he will seek vengeance for them both (Sì vendetta). Gilda begs him to forgive the Duke; she still loves him.
We are able to see both the inside of the inn and the deserted riverbank outside. The people in the respective locations cannot hear or see each other. Sparafucile is inside. Rigoletto has brought Gilda, who still believes the Duke loves her, to observe his perfidy for herself. The Duke appears inside, demands a room and some wine and then sings the famous aria La donna è mobile (Woman is fickle). When he returns with the wine, Sparafucile knocks on the ceiling to call his sister. In a quartet, a crestfallen Gilda watches the Duke flirt with Maddalena, and Rigoletto swears revenge (Bella figlia dell’amore — Beautiful daughter of love).
Rigoletto, thinking Gilda has finally been convinced of the Duke’s true nature, tells her to go to safety in Verona where he will meet her soon. Sparafucile comes out and Rigoletto gives him half of the agreed upon sum. He will return at midnight to collect the body and pay the rest. Maddalena tries to save the Duke by telling him to go but a terrible storm is approaching, and he asks for a room for the night. Maddalena begs Sparafucile to spare the handsome young man, but he refuses. She tries to persuade him to kill the jester instead and keep all of the money, but the assassin has pride in his profession. He would never betray a paying customer. Gilda appears outside, dressed as a man, and overhears them agreeing to kill the first person who appears before midnight. Determined to save the Duke’s life at the expense of her own life, she knocks at the door. The door is opened, there is a cry, and then silence.
Rigoletto returns, gleefully anticipating his revenge. Midnight strikes and Sparafucile comes out with a sack supposedly holding the Duke’s body. The jester is about to drag it to the river when he hears the Duke’s La donna è mobile. Horrified he opens the sack to find his dying daughter. She begs his forgiveness and says she will pray for him in heaven (Lassù in cielo — There up in heaven). Instead of the customary concerted finale, Verdi ends the opera as Gilda dies and a heartbroken Rigoletto once more cries, La maledizione!