The Ducal Palace in Mantua
A crowd of lords and ladies in magnificent costume are taking part in festivities. The Duke confidentially reveals to his courtier Borsa his intention to seduce a beautiful girl he has met in church and whose name he still does not know. The Duke is a libertine and is merely indulging a whim, as he has done on many other occasions. He flirts with the Countess of Ceprano and, with the aid of his court jester Rigoletto, even makes fun of her husband. The festivities are at their height when the Count of Monterone accuses the Duke of dishonouring his daughter. However, everyone cries out at this disturbance; and as the Count is led away by two soldiers, he curses the jester for pouring scorn on a father's grief. Rigoletto feels the curse weigh heavily on his heart.
A lonely back street
Later, when in a lonely back street Rigoletto meets the brigand Sparafucile, who offers his services as a hired assassin, he realizes that he himself is no better than that rascal. In a state of great agitation he returns home and affectionately greets his daughter Gilda, who begs him to tell her something about her dead mother. But this is a subject he finds too painful. And, as if struck by some sad premonition, he forbids his daughter to leave the house for any reason whatever, and orders the governess Giovanna to guard this precious creature. Nevertheless as soon as he has left the house, Giovanna betrays his trust and lets the disguised Duke of Mantua enter the courtyard in secret to have an impassioned encounter with Gilda, who is unaware of his true identity. The sound of footsteps forces the cynical wooer to retire, leaving the girl alone to dream of the false name her lover has told her. Rigoletto is ill at ease; as he hurriedly makes his way homewards in the darkness, he suddenly finds himself surrounded by a group of courtiers on their way to abduct the woman they believe to be the jester's lover. When they meet Rigoletto, they play a cruel trick on him: Marullo and Borsa hint that they intend to kidnap the Countess of Ceprano: Rigoletto is given no option but to join them, put on a mask and hold the ladder. Only too late does he realize that it is his own daughter they are abducting, and cries out in horror.
The rooms of the Ducal Palace
The Duke, who has just learned that Gilda has been abducted, is in a state of despair. He is already planning his revenge when his courtiers arrive and waggishly recount how they abducted Rigoletto's 'lover', who is none other than Gilda. The Duke is elated to hear that his latest prey is now safe in the Ducal palace, and makes haste to join her. A disconsolate Rigoletto then arrives. His appearance is greeted with derision by the courtiers. Overcome with suffering he confesses who the kidnapped woman really is, and begs them to return his daughter to him unharmed. He even tries to force his way into the Ducal apartments but meets strong resistance from the courtiers, whom he violently abuses. After another desperate attempt, Gilda herself finally appears and throws herself into her father's arms. In tears she tells him of the outrage she was subjected to. When the courtiers leave the room, the wretched girl tells her father how she innocently fell in love with the Duke. Rigoletto's anguish knows no bounds and, as the Count of Monterone is being led away to prison, he furiously proclaims that there shall be vengeance.
Gilda and her father are together at a deserted spot along the banks of the River Mincio outside the city, near a dilapidated house where Sparafucile has set up a tavern. Gilda is still in love with the Duke. In order to cure her of her passion, Rigoletto has brought her to this disreputable place, where the Duke is soon expected to arrive in disguise and order from the innkeeper some good wine and a room. The Duke sings a song that expresses his philosophy of love, and starts to flirt with Maddalena, Sparafucile's sister. Unseen, Gilda looks on in despair. To comfort her, her father tells her he is about to wreak vengeance, so he presses her to make haste to Verona, in male clothing so as not to attract attention. As soon as she has gone, Rigoletto engages Sparafucile to murder the Duke. This time, however, Maddalena refuses to look on while her brother does his dirty work. She has taken a liking to the unknown gentleman staying at the tavern. A storm is brewing. Eventually Sparafucile gives in to his sister's passionate pleading and agrees to kill the first person to appear at the tavern in the Duke's stead. Gilda, who has returned and overheard their conversation decides to sacrifice her own life for her unfaithful lover. Her intentions are then accomplished in the darkness of the tavern. The clock strikes midnight. The storm is dying down and Rigoletto returns to collect his due. Sparafucile, after collecting his fee consigns to the jester a bloody sack, adding that the body must be immediately thrown into the river. Rigoletto wants to be alone. His moment of triumph suddenly turns to panic when he hears the voice of the Duke singing his song from the tavern. He tears the sack open and, in a flash of lightning, recognizes his mortally wounded daughter. As she dies, she begs her father's forgiveness. Rigoletto, in a frenzy, is left to cry out at the curse.
Verdi was commissioned to write a new opera by the theatre La Fenice, Venice in 1850, when he was already a well known composer with a certain freedom of choosing the works he would prefer. He then asked Piave (with whom he had already created Ernani, I due Foscari, Macbeth, Il Corsaro and Stiffelio) to examine the play Kean by Alexandre Dumas, père, but he felt he needed a more energetic subject to work on.
Verdi soon stumbled upon Victor Hugo's Le roi s'amuse. He later explained that "It contains extremely powerful positions ... The subject is great, immense, and has a character that is one of the most important creations of the theatre of all countries and all Ages".
It was a highly controversial subject indeed, and Hugo himself had already had trouble with censorship in France, which had banned productions of his play after its first performance nearly twenty years earlier (and would continue to ban it for another thirty years). As Austria at that time directly controlled much of Northern Italy, it came before the Austrian Board of Censors.
From the beginning, Verdi was aware of the risks as was Piave. A letter has been found in which Verdi wrote to Piave: "Use four legs, run through the town and find me an influential person who can obtain the permission for making Le Roi s'amuse." Correspondence between a prudent Piave and an already committed Verdi followed, and the two remained at risk and underestimated the power and the intentions of Austrians. Even the friendly Guglielmo Brenna, secretary of La Fenice who had promised them that they would not have problems with the censors, was in error.
At the beginning of the summer of 1850, some rumors started to spread that Austrian censorship was going to forbid the production. They considered the Hugo work to verge on lese majeste, and would never permit such a scandalous work to be performed in Venice.
In August, Verdi and Piave prudently retired to Busseto, Verdi's hometown, to continue the composition and prepare a defensive scheme. They wrote to the theatre, assuring them that the censor's doubts about the morality of the work were not justified but since very little time was left, very little could be done. The work was secretly called by the composers The Malediction (or The Curse), and this unofficial title was used by Austrian censor De Gorzkowski (who evidently had known of it from spies) to enforce, if needed, the violent letter by which he definitively denied consent to its production.
In order not to waste all their work, Piave tried to revise the libretto and was even able to pull from it another opera Il Duca di Vendome, in which the sovereign was substituted with a duke and both the hunchback and the curse disappeared. Verdi was completely against this proposed solution and preferred instead to have direct negotiations with censors, arguing over each and every point of the work.
At this point Brenna, La Fenice's secretary, showed the Austrians some letters and articles depicting the bad character but the great value of the artist, helping to mediate the dispute. In the end the parties were able to agree that the action of the opera had to be moved from the royal court of France to a duchy of France or Italy, as well as a renaming of the characters. The scene in which the sovereign retires in Gilda's bedroom would be deleted and the visit of the Duke to the Taverna was not intentional anymore, but provoked by a trick. The hunchback (originally Triboulet) became Rigoletto (from French rigolo = funny). The name of the work too was changed.
For the première, Verdi had Felice Varesi as Rigoletto, the young tenor Raffaele Mirate as the Duke, and Teresina Brambilla as Gilda (though Verdi would have preferred Teresa De Giuli Borsi). Teresina Brambilla was a well-known soprano coming from a family of singers and musicians; one of her nieces, Teresa Brambilla, was the wife of Amilcare Ponchielli.
The opening was a complete triumph, and the Duke's cynical aria, "La donna è mobile", was sung in the streets the next morning.
Due to the high risk of unauthorised copying, Verdi had demanded the maximum secrecy from all his singers and musicians. Mirate had use of his score only a few evenings before the première and was forced to swear he would not sing or even whistle the tune of "La donna è mobile".