THE short prelude announces the terrible nature of the catastrophe that dominates all the scenes of frivolity and dissipation that lead up to it. On one of these scenes the curtain rises. It is a revel in the Duke of Mantua’s palace. The dancing is accompanied throughout by orchestras on the stage. The profligate and fickle Duke (tenor) is telling a confidant, Borsa (tenor), of a beautiful maiden, Della mia bella incognita, who dwells in a retired quarter where a mysterious man visits her nightly; the Duke follows her to mass, feigning to be a poor student, and believes he has made an impression on her heart. He loves all the sex (Questa o quella). The Countess of Ceprano comes by, and the Duke’s attention is directed to her charms. Her husband’s vigilance is powerless to screen her from the Duke’s gallantry. (Minuetto and Rigondino : Partite? crudele !) She goes off on his arm to the dance, while the jealous husband follows, pursued by the mockery of the jester, Rigoletto (baritone).
In their absence, Marullo (baritone), one of the courtiers, enters and tells the rest, as a secret, that he has tracked Rigoletto, and finds that he visits a mistress every night. They have all smarted at his witticisms, and now laugh at the hunchback’s expense.
The amorous Duke returns. He is annoyed at Count Ceprano’s jealousy, and appeals to Rigoletto for means to get rid of the inconvenient husband. Rigoletto suggests poison, exile, and the block, and finally attacks him with biting jests, making him furious. Ceprano (bass) swears vengence on Rigoletto, and the other courtiers join in and consult to abduct his mistress, for they all owe him a grudge for his sarcasms. Their cousultation is interrupted by a train of dancers from the ball-room, and presently the revelry is broken into by the forcible entry of the old Count Monterone (bass), who comes to denounce the Duke for dishonouring his daughter.
The jester diverts the assembly by mimicing his voice and speech, and the heart-broken father turns upon him and solemnly curses him, to his great horror. The audacious intruder is arrested and led away, followed by the vile abuse of the revellers, while Rigoletto stands apart, appalled.
The scene changes to the blind end of a lonely street. On the left is a small house with a little court surrounded by a wall which cuts the stage in two down the middle. In the court is a big tree and a marble seat. A door leads into the street, on the opposite side of which is the high wall of the garden and one side of Ceprano’s palace. A stairway leads up to the front of the house. Wrapped in his mantle, and weighed down by the father’s malediction, Rigoletto is on his way home in the darkness. (Duetto: Quel vecchio maledivami.) He is accosted by a bravo, who assumes from his gloom that he has an enemy, and offers to remove him for a price, half in advance. Rigoletto rejects his offer but makes a note of his name, Sparafucile ; and learns that he lures his victims to his lonely inn by the charms of a beautiful sister, a dancer. The chief melodic interest of this duet lies in the orchestra, for the singers almost declaim their parts.
Left alone, Rigoletto reflects that he stabs men with words, the bravo with steel; and the curse again oppresses him. He enters his courtyard, and forgets his boding in the loving greeting of, not his mistress (duetto : Figlia ! Mio padre !), but his beautiful daughter, Gilda (soprano). To his anxious inquiries, she assures him she has never gone out during her three months’ residence in Mantua, except to mass. Rigoletto evades her questions as to his occupation, country, and family. They bleed their orisons for peace to the spirit of Gilda’s angel mother, the only being in the world who felt pity instead of contempt for the hunchback. The music is beautifully contrasted here, for Gilda’s graceful cantilenas mingle with her father’s pathetic accents. Rigoletto impressively adjures Giovanna, the Duenna, to guard his treasure, in a most wonderful musical number, Veglia, o donna, questo fore, and Gilda trusts to her mother’s spirit for protection. He opens the door in the wall and gazes abstractedly into the street. The Duke, disguised as a student, glides in behind him, and throws a purse to Giovanna to buy her silence, and hides under the tree. Rigoletto comes back and asks Giovanna whether Gilda was ever followed on her way to church. On her denial, he says, “Farewell, my daughter.” The Duke is astonished and ejaculates ” Rigoletto ! ” ” His daughter ! from his hiding-place. On his departure, Gilda tells Giovanna she is remorseful at not having mentioned the student who follows her to mass. In a duetto (Signor nè principe io lo vorrei), she confesses that whatever his rank or condition she must. . . . ” Love ! ” cries the Duke, coming forward and finishing the sentence as he falls at her feet. Mutual transports follow, and when she asks his name he invents one for the occasion, Gualtier Maldè. Their vows are interrupted by the voices of Ceprano and Borsa outside. Giovanna comes to tell them she hears footsteps, and Rigoletto may be returning. The Duke does not want his identity discovered, and therefore consents to leave the house by a side door after fond adieux. Left alone, Gilda now knows her lover’s name and weaves tender fancies around it ( Caro nome the il mio cor ). As she retires, mounting the outside stairs, Ceprano and other courtiers scale the wall to carry off the jester’s mistress and reward him for his sallies. Rigoletto enters, and the darkness and their masks prevent his recognizing them. One of them explains that they have come to carry off the Countess di Ceprano from the adjoining palace, at the Duke’s command, and requires his help. He submits to being masked ; and, unknown to him, they also blindfold him. They make him hold the ladder by which they ascend to Gilda’s chamber, and thus make him accessory to his own ruin. Here occurs the famous whispered chorus of the abductors, Zitti, zitti ! She is dragged away with a kerchief bound over her mouth to stifle her screams. When they have all gone, Rigoletto first perceives that he is blindfolded. He tears off the bandage, and then sees the scarf Gilda has dropped in her struggle. With horrible foreboding he rushes to her room and discovers the outrage. Overwhelmed with anguish, he attributes it to the curse.
ACT II. The Duke is alone in his palace (Parmi veder le lagrime ). He returned to Gilda’s house and heard of her abduction, and grieves that he cannot help her nor comfort her. Courtiers enter and relate the night’s adventure as a good joke. The Duke recognizes his charmer in their supposed mistress of Rigoletto, and when he hears they have brought her to the palace, he hastens to her to declare his rank and take advantage of her situation.
Rigoletto enters, to the scoffs of the courtiers; and the music betrays the anxiety his words try to conceal. When he undeceives them as to his relationship to Gilda, and in bitter woe demands his daughter, their sneers are silenced. From their evasive replies he gathers the truth, and in despairing fury tries to break into the room where he believes her to be, cursing those who would stay him. From fruitless effort he turns to equally vain entreaty. The Andante agitate, Cortigiani vil razza dannata, is one of the finest numbers in the work.
A transient gleam of happiness comes as Gilda rushes wildly from the Duke’s room and throws herself into his arms, but his anguish returns as he learns of her ruin. He imperiously orders the courtiers to leave the room; they obey, half in fear of his menaces and half in derision.
Left alone, Gilda confesses her meetings with the student and all the fatal consequences. Rigoletto tries to console her. Their duetto, Tulle le festi al tempio, is writ-ten with the greatest skill for the voices. Monterone passes through to prison under guard. He pauses before the Duke’s portrait to wonder that this ruthless profligate is left unpunished by Heaven. Rigoletto overhears and vows to find an avenger for both their wrongs. Gilda still loves her betrayer and tries to stop the awful oath.
ACT III. It is night. The bravo’s inn, both inside and outside, is visible to us on the river-bank. Gilda cannot overcome her love, and so her father has brought her here to witness the infidelity of the Duke, who enters the house disguised as a soldier, while Rigoletto tells Gilda to watch him through a hole in the wall on the opposite side. He calls for wine, and while Sparafucile is getting it, he gaily sings of changeable womankind, La donna è mobile, yet owning that man cannot do without her. This facile and graceful melody maintains the same character for the Duke that his Questa o quella in Act I revealed. At a signal from the bravo, his sister, Maddalena (mezzo soprano), comes into the room, when he leaves her with the guest and joins Rigoletto outside. He tells of his success in decoying the young man pointed out by the hunchback, and asks if he is to carry out the affair. Rigoletto requires a few moments’ reflection. Gilda watches her perjured lover make devoted love to Maddalena, who coquettishly leads him on. Tender addresses and laughing raillery in-side are contrasted with Gilda’s heart-broken sobs outside and her father’s entreaties to tear the false one from her heart forever. The gallantry of the Duke, the coquetry of Maddalena, the horror of Gilda, and Rigoletto compassion for his daughter and hatred for the Duke are given with splendid effect. In this remarkable quartette (Un di se ben rammentomi), the two groups are so separate that we might almost consider it as two duettos. The situation demands that they should be distinct. The orchestra well supports the vocal edifice, but the rhythm is especially interesting. Finally, in desperation, Gilda yields and goes to put on male attire to take horse and hasten to Verona, whither Rigoletto will follow, and where they may end their days in sorrow and obscurity. Rigoletto then pays the bravo ten crowns, half his price, to fulfil his vengeance, promising to return at midnight to pay the rest on receipt of the corpse, which none but he shall cast into the river. A storm, black as the moods of the characters, bursts on the scene. The realistic effect of the moaning of the wind is produced by the chorus behind the scenes humming with closed mouth in chromatic thirds. Other masters have tried this effect, but have kept it up too long. Verdi knew when to stop. The Duke is unwilling to brave the tempest and Sparafucile offers his own bed for the night. He accepts, and is ushered upstairs, where the host commends him to the care of Heaven and leaves him to fall asleep, unaware of the doom prepared, after again singing a snatch of his gay ditty. Maddalena has been greatly taken with the Duke, and begs her brother to spare his life; but he wants the rest of his hire, and refuses. She suggests to him to kill the hunchback on his return and take the money. But the bravo is too honourable to take what he has not earned. However, if any one comes to the inn before midnight, he consents to kill him instead of her handsome admirer, and give the body to his employer in-stead. Gilda, notwithstanding her wrongs, cannot quit the vicinity forever of him whom she still loves without again assuring herself that he is false, and so she returns, dressed as ordered by her father, and once more looks through the crevice. There she overhears the above discussion, and learns that she may save her lover by presenting herself as his substitute. She immediately knocks and craves shelter from the tempest, and is admitted.
A bell midnight. Rigoletto knocks and demands his prey. Sparafucile drags out his victim in a sack, and would cast it into the river ; but Rigoletto will not forego this gratification of his revenge. In exultation, he pays the balance, and is about to depart with his burden when, to his horror, he hears the gay ditty La Donna e mobile of the Duke, whom Maddalena has awakened, and who with her is now carelessly seeking a place of safety. This coarse insult to the father’s broken heart is prolonged the whole length of the melody. At length, arousing from the stupor into which he has been plunged by the hated voice, he fearfully opens the sack and discovers his bleeding child, who prays for mercy on her betrayer with her last words. Exclaiming Ah la maledizione! Rigoletto falls despairingly at the side of his daughter. The panderer to another’s vices and abettor of another’s crimes now feels the fulfilment of the curse laid upon him by the father at whom he had scoffed when his daughter was ruined.