Rigoletto by Giuseppi Verdi (1813-1851) is a dramatic masterpiece, showing Verdi’s genius in producing characters whose inner conflicts weave complex webs of dramatic tension. Rigoletto is both the evil jester and a loving father. Gilda, the naïve ingenue is capable of forgiveness and sacrificial love. The Duke of Mantua can appear as both callow youth and heartless libertine. Verdi sets the stage in Mantua where the licentious court of the Duke’s privileged debauchery is on display. The Duke boasts of his conquests of women and Rigoletto suggests he imprison Count Ceprano and seduce his wife. Furious, Ceprano plots to abduct a girl he suspects is Rigoletto’s mistress. Monterone forces his way in to denounce the Duke for the rape of his daughter. As he is led away, Rigoletto cruelly mocks him and Moneterone pronounces a vengeful curse which horrifies the jester.
As Rigoletto broods on the curse, he encounters Sparafucile, a professional assassin, who offers his services. Rigoletto rejects the offer but will recall it later. He reaches home and greets his daughter. They speak of her mother and Rigoletto tells Gilda that she is all he has that is good in the world. He leaves her in charge of her nurse. We find that the Duke has been courting Gilda while disguised as a student, Gulatier Malde’, and she has fallen in love with him. Now he arrives but they are interrupted by the courtiers who have come to steal her away. They encounter Rigoletto and slyly enlist his aid to abduct Count Ceprano’s wife from across the street. Rigoletto joins in the joke but when the mask they give him obscures his vision, he is turned around and the cruel joke is on him as he helps them to kidnap his daughter, Gilda. When they leave him alone he discovers the awful truth.
The Duke paces, fearful that Gilda has been taken away but when he learns that she has been brought to him, he rushes to her. When Rigoletto appears looking for her, the courtiers bar his way, astonished to learn that Gilda is his daughter. He lashes out at them in fury and then collapses into pleading. Gilda is released, disheveled and shamed. Rigoletto orders the courtiers away. Moneterone passes by on his way to his execution, providing the ironic backdrop for Rigoletto’s oath of vengeance. Gilda, in spite of her ill treatment and in love with the Duke, begs for his life.
Father and daughter huddle outside of a small, lonely inn where Sparafucile and his sister, Maddalena, entertain the Duke. Rigoletto tells Gilda to disguise herself as a boy and meet him in Verona. When she is gone, he hires Sparafucile to kill the Duke. As a storm breaks, Gilda returns and overhears Maddelena pleading with her brother to spare the Duke but his “professional ethics” will not allow him to break his contract. At length he agrees that someone has to die – the Duke or the next person who knocks on the door that night. At the height of the storm, Gilda enters the inn and sacrifices herself to save the Duke. Shortly, Rigoletto returns to collect a sack containing the body. He gloats over the death of his former patron but is stopped short when he hears the voice of the Duke in the inn. He frantically opens the sack to find Gilda. As the remembrance of Monterone’s curse crashes in on him, Rigoletto realizes that vengeance has consumed the avenger. Gilda dies in his arms. The curse has been fulfilled.