A party is in progress at the ducal palace. The Duke privately discloses to Borsa his infatuation with a young girl he observed at a local church. In the same breath he professes his desire for the Countess Ceprano, and Borsa gently chides him for his wayward manner toward women. The Duke hardly denies the charge – he simply can’t help himself when surrounded by so many pretty faces.
From across the room, the court jester Rigoletto mocks Count Ceprano as the Duke makes an advance on his wife. Tired of Rigoletto’s acid tongue, the courtiers decide to teach him a lesson. Marullo has discovered the jester is keeping a mistress whom they decide to abduct and give to the Duke for his pleasure.
Count Monterone storms in and accuses the Duke of seducing his young daughter. Again, Rigoletto mocks the grieving father; in return he receives a curse – a curse the jester takes very seriously.
On his way home, Rigoletto encounters Sparafucile, a Burgundian whom he soon learns is also a hired assassin. He offers his services, and though Rigoletto declines for the moment, he begins to consider revenge as payment for his lot in life. Once at home, Rigoletto revels in his one secret joy, his daughter Gilda. To protect her virtue, he demands she remain at home, only to go out for church. Though very dutiful, Gilda does not disclose she has recently met a handsome young man, and as soon as Rigoletto leaves she encounters her paramour (really the Duke disguised as a poor student) in the garden. They profess their love and “Gualtier” departs.
Fearing something is amiss, Rigoletto returns, only to find Marullo in the street. The courtier quickly covers his tracks – a plan is underfoot to abduct the Countess Ceprano, who lives nearby, and present her to the Duke. Rigoletto is only too happy to partake in a joke on the hated Count and agrees to steady the ladder. Marullo not only masks the jester to match the other bandits, but covers his eyes and ears so that he is unable to discover they are really at the window of his own home. Rigoletto realizes he has been duped only after the courtiers have managed to spirit his daughter away.
Back at the palace, the Duke is distressed, for he witnessed the abduction of his lover and promises vengeance. He is only too delighted when his courtiers return with Gilda, whom he quickly ushers into his private apartments. Rigoletto arrives presently, feigning to take the joke in good stride while fervently looking for Gilda. The noblemen are surprised to learn she is his daughter, but still refuse to help. In desperation, Rigoletto unleashes his anger, then tries to elicit their sympathy, but to no avail. Gilda soon emerges from the room disheveled, and runs to her father’s arms. As Rigoletto consoles his daughter, Monterone is led to his execution, and the jester promises to avenge both of their daughters’ disgrace.
On the edge of town, Rigoletto and Gilda lie in wait. Gilda still professes her love for the Duke, so Rigoletto plans to show her exactly what kind of man he really is. They observe the Duke entering Sparafucile’s tavern for an amorous rendezvous with the assassin’s seductive sister, Maddalena, and Gilda’s heart is broken. Rigoletto instructs his daughter to go to Verona (disguised as a man for safety), where he will join her the next day. He then makes the final arrangements with Sparafucile for the Duke’s murder.
Maddalena has grown fond of her charge and strikes a deal with her brother – the next person who knocks on their door will be killed and his body substituted for the Duke’s. Gilda, who has returned, overhears the plan, and overwrought with grief, knocks on the door and is stabbed. Sparafucile stuffs her body into a sack and gives it to Rigoletto upon his return at the appointed hour. As Rigoletto drags the bag to the river for disposal, he learns the Duke has not died, and to his horror, discovers he has been carrying his mortally wounded daughter.