The Duke of Mantua is in his club, boasting to one of his followers about his success with women. He proceeds to flirt with the Countess Ceprano, while his jester, Rigoletto, cruelly mocks her husband. Meanwhile, another acquaintance, Marullo, tells his friends of a surprising discovery: he has heard that Rigoletto has a mistress hidden away at home.
Rigoletto continues to taunt the Count who retaliates by arranging a midnight meeting with some of the other members present where he will extract his revenge on the jester.
An elderly nobleman, Count Monterone, enters and denounces the Duke for seducing his daughter. He curses the Duke and when mocked by Rigoletto, Monterone turns on him and curses him as well. The curse strikes terror on Rigoletto, for the woman he lives with is not his mistress, but his daughter.
Brooding over Monterone’s curse, Rigoletto returns to the home he shares with his daughter, Gilda, hiding her away from the licentiousness that takes place at the Duke’s club. On his way home, he is confronted by Sparafucile, a professional assassin, who offers him his services. Rigoletto sends him away, but then muses on the parallels between their professions.
Gilda greets her father, and begins to ask him questions about their family and background, which he refuses to answer. Determined to protect Gilda he forbids her to leave their home, except to attend church. He also warns Gilda’s companion, Giovanna, not to allow anyone to enter the house while he is out. However, the Duke steals in and hides. While in hiding, he is astonished to hear Rigoletto call Gilda his daughter as he bids her farewell.
Gilda confesses to Giovanna that she is in love with a young man who has been following her home every day after church. On hearing this, the Duke appears and declares his love for Gilda, identifying himself as Gualtier Maldè, a penniless student. Hearing footsteps, he rushes off, leaving Gilda thinking lovingly of his name.
The club members appear, masked and ready to abduct Rigoletto’s supposed mistress. He surprises them by returning, but Marullo convinces him that they are planning to abduct the wife of Count Ceprano who lives nearby. Rigoletto falls into their trap, permitting himself to be blindfolded and masked. Unknowingly, he assists the conspirators in their abduction of his daughter. Gilda cries out to her father as she is carried off. Becoming suspicious, Rigoletto tears off the blindfold, realises Gilda is gone and cries, ‘Ah, the curse!’
The Duke laments the loss of Gilda but when he is told of the abduction, he rejoices that she is now at his club.
When Rigoletto appears, he feigns nonchalance. Once it becomes clear to him that Gilda must be with the Duke, he tries to reach her, but the club members hold him back. His denunciation of their treachery dissolves into a bereft father’s pleading.
Left alone with Rigoletto, Gilda confesses that she is in love with the Duke and begs her father to forgive him. As Monterone is led to his execution, Rigoletto swears that they both will be avenged.
Rigoletto has brought Gilda to Sparafucile to prove her lover’s faithlessness. As they lurk in the darkness, the Duke enters. After proclaiming the fickleness of women, he showers attentions on Maddalena, the assassin’s sister, as Rigoletto tries to comfort his despairing daughter. He orders her to disguise herself as a boy and meet him in Verona. After striking a bargain with Sparafucile for the Duke’s murder, Rigoletto departs.
Gilda returns in her disguise in time to overhear Maddalena begging her brother to spare the handsome stranger’s life. Sparafucile agrees to deceive Rigoletto by substituting the corpse of the next person who appears. Having returned determined to sacrifice herself so the Duke may live, Gilda becomes Sparafucile’s next victim.
At the stroke of midnight, Rigoletto pays the assassin and reserves for himself the satisfaction of throwing the sack containing his enemy’s corpse into the river. When he hears the Duke’s voice in the distance, he opens the sack and finds his daughter instead of the Duke. Begging her father’s forgiveness, she dies. The despairing Rigoletto cries out once more, ‘Ah, the curse!’