The court jester Rigoletto is constantly provoking the young Duke of Mantua to new heights of debauchery. Rigoletto secretly hopes the Duke’s excesses will provoke a revolutionary uprising, paving the way for a new social order. His inconsiderateness and the power of his wit make him hated by all the other courtiers, but because he enjoys the Duke’s favor, none dare speak against him.
Act I, Scene I
An orgy is taking place at the palace of the Duke of Mantua. The intoxicated duke tells his courtier Borsa about a local girl he has been wooing, without revealing his own identity, at church. Having just had an affair with the daughter of the nobleman Monterone, the duke now finds his erotic interest piqued by the Countess Ceprano as well. Rigoletto ridicules her husband, Count Ceprano. Behind the jester’s back, the courtier Marullo spreads the news that the “monster” Rigoletto has a lover. The courtiers scent an opportunity to bring the mighty jester low. Without warning, Monterone interrupts the festivities to accuse the duke of dishonoring his daughter. But Rigoletto humiliates him, upon which Monterone pronounces a curse on the duke and his jester.
Act I, Scene II
In a dark alley, Sparafucile, a hired killer, offers Rigoletto his services. The unexpected encounter heightens the unease that has taken hold of Rigoletto in the wake of Monterone’s curse. Rigoletto has hidden his daughter Gilda in a secluded house. To him, she is the embodiment of all his hopes for a better future. He conceals from her his machinations as the duke’s accomplice, raising her instead according to the ideals of the coming society with the help of his political associate Giovanna. The duke succeeds in slipping into the home of the girl he covets, who is Gilda. Passing himself off as a student, he gains her trust and wins her love. Gilda hears noises outside the house and, fearing her father’s return, bids her beloved a hasty farewell. But it is the courtiers attempting to enter the house, intending to carry off Rigoletto’s mistress. Rigoletto suddenly appears. The courtiers claim they are there to kidnap Countess Ceprano from the palace opposite. Protected by an impenetrable mask, Rigoletto joins in with them. Too late he realizes that he has unwittingly abetted in the abduction of his own daughter.