A grief-stricken father before the lifeless body of his child. Such is the heart-rending image evoked by the final bars of Rigoletto. Taking this drama as a point of departure, Claus Guth has conceived a production in which the buffoon sees his life pass before his eyes, a humiliating farce softened only by the presence of his daughter. Shrouded in a scenography of poetic modernity, haunted by the indelible memory of Gilda, Rigoletto hears her reawaken to the deceptive promises of the Duke of Mantua’s love: “Caro nome…” An aria of great candour and one of the most beautiful that Verdi ever composed for soprano.
The Duke of Mantua is throwing a fancy dress party. He tells Matteo Borsa, a courtier, about an unknown young girl he has set his sights on after having observed her at church. Meanwhile he enjoys the company of the beautiful ladies at the party. Tonight, he is particularly attracted by the Countess Ceprano. Rigoletto, the duke’s jester, scorns the husband who fiercely tries to prevent the duke from seducing his wife. Marullo bursts in with the news that Rigoletto, the outcast, has a young and good looking lover. After the duke has failed to separate Count Ceprano from his wife, Rigoletto encourages his master to abduct the Countess. When he bluntly suggests exiling or even beheading the count, Ceprano appeals to the other courtiers who rally behind him; they all plot to take revenge on Rigoletto that same night by abducting the girl he is hiding away at his home. The festivities are interrupted by the sudden arrival of Count Monterone denouncing the duke as the seducer of his daughter. Taking the place of the duke, Rigoletto confronts him and mocks him cruelly. Monterone calls down a curse on the dukeand his jester. Rigoletto recognises that he has struck himself by ridiculing an outraged father. Rigoletto returns home. An unsettling character approaches him, introducing himself as the professional killer Sparafucile. Rigoletto refuses his services for now, but takes note of his proposition. At his house, Rigoletto meets his beloved daughter Gilda, whom he keeps concealed from the world leaving her in the custody of a woman named Giovanna. Despite Gilda’s pressing questions, Rigoletto does not fully reveal his own identity and profession to her. However, he tells her about her mother who died after her birth. Before leaving, Rigoletto exhorts Giovanna to guard the young girl well and prevent any contact with whomsoever. But the supposed watchdog has been bribed by the duke who clandestinely sneaks into the house just as Rigoletto is leaving. Giovanna encourages Gilda to overcome the remorse she is feeling because she did not tell her father about the young man she has met at church and with whom she has fallen in love. She dreams of him as a poor student not knowing that he is in fact the Duke of Mantua. When he approaches, at first she is terrified. But then she gives in to his declaration of love made under a false name and appearance. Footsteps are heard outside, and Giovanna urges the duke to depart. Alone again, Gilda dreams of the young stranger. Marullo, Borsa, Ceprano and other courtiers appear in order to abduct the woman they believe to be the jester’s mistress. When Rigoletto suddenly returns in the darkness he runs into Marullo, who tricks him into believing they have come to abduct Countess Ceprano and suggests he join them. On the pretext that he needs to be masked, he blindfolds him and gets him to hold a ladder. When Rigoletto, alerted by Gilda’s cries, rips off his mask, it is too late: the conspirators have made off with the young girl. Monterone’s curse has struck.
Next morning: in his palace the duke is worried about Gilda’s fate; the previous night he returned to her home to find it empty. He is happy when he learns from the courtiers that they have abducted the young girl. She is brought to him, and he reveals his true identity to her. Rigoletto tries to entertain the courtiers as usual, at the same time desperately searching for his daughter. A page of the duchess inadvertently transforms his doubts into certainty: Gilda is with the duke. The jester attacks the courtiers and finally begs them to give him back his daughter. Gilda is returned to her father, and they are left alone. Full of shame, she confesses how the duke gained her confidence and with the involuntary help of the courtiers succeeded in making her his mistress. Rigoletto swears vengeance.
A month has passed, but Gilda is still in love with the duke. In order to make her understand the true nature of his character, Rigoletto has taken her to Sparafucile’s tavern. He urges his daughter to watch the duke making advances to Sparafucile’s sister, Maddalena, who has served as a decoy to lure him into the trap. Rigoletto asks Gilda to put on men’s clothes and travel to Verona, where he will join her the next day. He then hires Sparafucile who promises to murder his guest whom he does not recognise as the duke since he has come incognito. Rigoletto requires that the corpse be delivered to him and they agree to meet again after midnight. While a storm is breaking and the duke has fallen asleep, Maddalena, seduced by the handsome young man, seeks to persuade her brother to spare him. Sparafucile proposes to kill in his stead the first man who shall knock at their door. Gilda, dressed as a man, has come back and overhears this conversation. She decides to sacrifice her life for the duke. When Rigoletto comes back, he takes the corpse Sparafucile delivers to him for the duke’s. The jester prides himself on having taken deadly revenge on the mighty man when he suddenly hears his master’s voice. Discovering Gilda, he must learn that he has killed his own daughter: the curse has fully been executed.