Life at court isn't all pomp and pageantry. There's deceit, lust ... and a curse that comes to pass. Tragedy befalls Rigoletto, the court jester, just when he thinks he's the one getting revenge. In Verdi's dramatic tale, love leads to murder.


Giuseppe Verdi’s tragic masterpiece is, at its heart, a revenge plan gone wrong. A curse placed on the Duke of Mantua – a player’s player – and his court jester, Rigoletto is triggered when Gilda, Rigoletto’s beautiful daughter, falls for the Duke. Mistaken identities abound. For instance, Gilda tells her nurse that she’s in love with a poor student, but it happens to be the Duke in disguise. Rigoletto – court jester by day – is actually a loving father, playing the role of the fool to protect his daughter. In the tragic ending, Gilda disguises herself as a young boy to save the Duke’s life. We’ll just leave it at this: Revenge backfires.

Rigoletto is an opera in three acts by Giuseppe Verdi with a libretto by Francesco Maria Piave. Based on the play “The King Amuses Himself” by Victor Hugo (Les Miserables, The Hunchback of Notre Dame), the story had to be changed from contemporary times to 16th century Mantua to satisfy royal censors. First performance: Venice in 1851.


Mantua, the 16th century

At his palace, the Duke of Mantua lightheartedly boasts of amorous conquests while escorting his latest prize, Countess Ceprano, to a private chamber. Meanwhile, his hunchback jester, Rigoletto, makes fun of her husband. Marullo announces that Rigoletto is suspected of keeping a mistress, and Ceprano plots with the courtiers to punish the hated buffoon. Attention is diverted when Monterone, an elderly nobleman, enters to denounce the Duke for seducing his daughter. Ridiculed by Rigoletto and placed under arrest, Monterone places a curse on both the Duke and his jester.

On his way home that night, Rigoletto broods over Monterone’s curse. Rejecting the services offered by Sparafucile, a professional assassin, he notes that the word can be as deadly as a dagger.

Greeted at home by his daughter, Gilda, whom he keeps hidden from the world, he reminisces about his late wife and then warns the governess, Giovanna, to admit no one. As Rigoletto leaves, the Duke slips into the garden, tossing a purse to Giovanna to keep her quiet. The nobleman declares his love to Gilda, who has noticed him in church – the only place she’s allowed to go. He tells her he is a poor student named Gualtier Maldè, but at the sound of footsteps, he rushes away.

Tenderly repeating his name, Gilda goes to her bedchamber. Meanwhile, the courtiers stop Rigoletto in the alley by his house. They tell him they are going to abduct Ceprano’s wife, and convince him to help. The jester is duped into wearing a blindfold. Holding a ladder against his own garden wall, the courtiers break into his house and carry off Gilda. Hearing his daughter’s cry for help, Rigoletto tears off his blindfold and rushes into the house, discovering only her scarf. He remembers Monterone’s curse.


In his palace, the Duke is distraught over the disappearance of Gilda. When his courtiers return, saying it is they who have taken her and that she is now in his bedchamber, he joyfully rushes off to the conquest. Rigoletto enters warily, looking for Gilda. The courtiers at first taunt him and prevent him from seeing the Duke. They are astonished to learn the girl is not his mistress – but his daughter. Gilda runs from the Duke’s bedchamber and tells her father of her courtship and abduction. As Monterone is led to the dungeon, Rigoletto vows to avenge them both.


At night, outside Sparafucile’s run-down inn on the outskirts of town, Sparafucile tells his sister/accomplice, Maddalena, that they are to be paid for the dead body of her next customer who, unknown to her, is the Duke. Outside the tavern, Gilda and Rigoletto watch their victim arrive, and make his advances on Maddalena. Rigoletto sends his daughter off to disguise herself as a boy for her escape to Verona. He pays Sparafucile to murder the Duke.

As a storm rages, Maddalena sends her new admirer to the bedroom. She argues with her brother about murdering him, for she likes him too much. Sparafucile agrees to kill their next visitor and to substitute that body for the Duke’s. Gilda has returned, disguised as a boy, and overhears them. Resolving to sacrifice herself for her beloved Duke, despite his betrayal, she enters the inn and is stabbed. Rigoletto comes back to claim the body and gloats over the sack Sparafucile gives him, only to hear his supposed victim singing in the distance. Frantically cutting open the sack, he discovers his dying daughter. Monterone’s curse is fulfilled.

POPera Facts

Even if you’ve never seen or heard of Verdi’s tragedy, it may feel familiar. Rigoletto may be for you if you’ve been:

  • It’s been recorded by the greatest tenors in the world – and Alvin & the Chipmunks! It’s been used on Dancing with the Stars – and it’s the soundtrack for the Grand Theft Auto video game. What is it? The famous aria “La donna e’ mobile” (“Women are fickle”) sung by the player of players, the Duke of Mantua, in Rigoletto.
  • Dumbstruck by the out-of-nowhere ending of an M. Night Shyamalan movie – like The Sixth Sense
  • Blown away by the delicious, dangerous twists Shonda Rhimes dreams up for Scandal

Meet the Composer

Giuseppe Verdi


The great Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi was born in La Roncole on October 10, 1813. Displaying considerable talent from a very early age, he was assistant organist at the small local church by the time he was 10.

In 1829, at the age of 13, he was an assistant conductor of the Busseto orchestra and an organist at the town church. In 1836, Verdi married Margherita Barezzi, the daughter of his greatest benefactor. His first successful opera, Oberto, opened at La Scala in 1839. However, his next opera, the comedy, Un Giorno di Regno (King for a Day), was a complete failure.

To add tragedy to insult, Verdi lost his wife and two young children to illness within the same year, and the despondent composer resolved to give up music altogether. Fortunately, the manager of La Scala persuaded him to persevere and write his next opera – Nabucco, which premiered in 1842 to great acclaim and securing Verdi’s reputation as a major figure in the music world.

Between 1844 and 1850, Verdi composed at a tremendous rate, demonstrating a maturing style and more flowing musical line, as evidenced in Ernani (1844), Macbeth (1847), and Luisa Miller (1849).

During his “middle period,” Verdi wrote three of his most successful operas: Rigoletto (1851), Il Trovatore (1853) and La traviata (1853). These were followed by I vespri siciliani (The Sicilian Vespers, 1855), Simon Boccanegra (1857), Un ballo in maschera (A Masked Ball, 1859), La Forza del Destino (The Force of Destiny, 1862) and Don Carlos (1867).

After Aïda (1871), which commemorated the opening of the Suez Canal in Egypt, Verdi retired to his estate at Sant’Agata, where he wrote the great Requiem Mass. Verdi was drawn back to the opera by his publisher, Giulio Ricordi, who introduced him to the celebrated poet and composer Arrigo Boito. They worked together on what would be Verdi’s final triumphs, both based on works by Shakespeare: Otello (1886) Falstaff (1893), the only other comedy he had written since the disastrous Un Giorno di Regno and considered Verdi’s humanistic masterpiece.

Upon his death in 1901, there were scenes of national mourning for the man who was a great musician, philanthropist and patriot to all of Italy. At the funeral, the 28,000 people who lined the streets of Milan broke out softly and spontaneously into Va pensiero, the great chorus of the Hebrew slaves from…


Jordan Lee Braun


Sara Jobin


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