The Duke of Mantua (tenor)
Rigoletto, the Duke’s jester (baritone)
Gilda, Rigoletto’s daughter (soprano)
Sparafucile, a hired killer (bass)
Maddalena, Sparafucile’s sister (mezzosoprano)
Giovanna, Gilda’s Nurse (mezzosoprano)
Count Monterone, a Mantuan nobleman (baritone)
Marullo, a knight (baritone)
Matteo Borsa, a courtier (tenor)
Count Ceprano (bass)
Countess Ceprano (mezzosoprano)
An usher (bass)
A page (mezzosoprano)
The action takes place in and around the town of Mantua, in the 16th century.
Scene I. In the Duke of Mantua’s Palace. The rakish Duke of Mantua confides to Borsa that he has met at church a mysterious young woman who lives in another part of town, but that he’s already bored with her. He likes to flit from one woman to the next, and now he’s turned his attention to Countess Ceprano. Meanwhile, Marullo brings news that Rigoletto has a lover hidden in a house in the town. The ball is in full swing and Rigoletto himself arrives to liven it up with his jests. But the mood changes when Count Monterone enters. The aged Count is offended because the Duke has seduced his daughter, and Rigoletto pokes fun at him. Monterone insults the Duke and curses Rigoletto for laughing at a father’s grief. To everyone’s consternation, the Duke orders Monterone’s arrest, while Rigoletto is genuinely frightened by the curse.
Scene II. That same night, in a dark street. The jester recalls the curse with a feeling of impending doom. A stranger approaches and introduces himself as Sparafucile. Rigoletto turns him away, but asks where he can find him again if he needs him. Gilda appears and runs into Rigoletto’s arms: she’s the jester’s secret daughter, who doesn’t know who her father really is or what he does. Rigoletto keeps her hidden because she’s the one source of joy in his life of misery. Gilda asks him to tell her about her mother, and he describes her as an angel who is now dead. The father insists that she must not go out, and tells Giovanna to watch her closely. Gilda, however, has concealed from him that she’s met a young student whom she first saw at mass. The "student" is none other than the Duke, who is eavesdropping, and has just learned that Gilda is his jester’s daughter. Once Rigoletto has gone, the Duke comes out of his hiding place and declares his passionate love to Gilda. He tells her he’s a poor student and his name is Gualtier Maldè. Giovanna, whom the Duke has bribed, warns the lovers that she’s heard footsteps outside. After a hurried leave-taking, Gilda remains wrapped in thought about her Gualtier Maldè. The courtiers have come to kidnap the woman they believe to be Rigoletto’s lover. Rigoletto returns and is surprised to find them, armed and masked, so close to his home. The courtiers tell him they’ve been sent by the Duke to abduct Countess Ceprano, and Rigoletto agrees to help them. They wrap a cloth around his head which covers his eyes, and tell him to hold the ladder while they climb up it into Ceprano’s house. It’s only when Rigoletto hears Gilda’s desperate cries as she is being carried off by the courtiers, that he realizes they’ve climbed into his own house, and made a fool of him. Rigoletto remembers Monterone’s curse.
A drawing room in the Duke’s Palace. Learning that Gilda has been kidnapped, the Duke is full of concern for her safety. Enter his courtiers, who tell him it was they who carried her off. Still believing her to be Rigoletto’s lover, they have brought her to the Palace. The Duke is overjoyed. Gilda has been taken to the Duke’s chambers, and he hurries off to find her.
Enter Rigoletto, trying to discover his daughter’s whereabouts. He’s looking for any clue that will confirm to him that she’s being held in the Palace. The courtiers act innocent and smugly claim to have slept soundly all night. Rigoletto enquires where the Duke is, and one of them replies "he’s out hunting". Driven by desperation, Rigoletto pleads with them to give him his daughter back. At last they learn that she’s his daughter, but that doesn’t make them behave any better with him. Rigoletto loses his temper, but finally he goes down on his knees and begs Marullo to take pity on her. Gilda rushes in from the Duke’s private quarters. Alone with her father and weeping for shame, she explains what has happened. Count Monterone is being escorted to prison. Addressing the Duke’s portrait hanging on the wall, he remarks that his curse hasn’t worked. Rigoletto swears to get even with the Duke, while Gilda tries in vain to pacify him.
A tumbledown house on the banks of the River Mincio. Rigoletto has hired Sparafucile to avenge him. Sparafucile’s sister Maddalena has lured the Duke to their isolated home on the outskirts of the town. Oblivious to what Gilda is going through and thinking only of his next conquest, the Duke sings a merry tune. Through a crevice in the house wall, Rigoletto and Gilda watch the Duke flirt with Maddalena. Gilda is in agony, but cannot tear herself away. Rigoletto tells his daughter to flee to Verona disguised as a man. He will join her the next day. Once he believes his daughter is on her way, he pays Sparafucile half the sum agreed. He will return at midnight to pay the rest and collect the Duke’s corpse. Meanwhile, Maddalena has fallen in love with the Duke for real, and won’t let her brother do the job Rigoletto hired him for. After some discussion, and with a storm raging outside, they agree to kill the first person who comes by. Gilda is listening in and, still in love with the Duke, resolves to give her life for him. She pounds on the door, crying out for shelter from the storm. Maddalena opens up and Sparafucile strikes out with his dagger.
Rigoletto comes for the corpse. Sparafucile hands over a sack. The jester pays the rest of the money, elated that he is getting his revenge. Over at the house he can hear the Duke reprising his song. Is his mind playing tricks on him? He hurriedly opens the sack, and a flash of lightning illuminates the face of his daughter. Gilda is still alive, but fading fast. The daughter begs her father’s forgiveness. Reunited in heaven, she and her mother will pray for him. She dies in the arms of Rigoletto who, overcome with grief, cries out that the curse has taken effect.