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Scene 1. A village, a mill in the background
Lisa, the proprietress of the inn, is consumed with jealousy as the betrothal procession of Amina and Elvino, who had once been betrothed to her, approaches. She spurns the lovelorn Alessio. Amina thanks her friends for their kind wishes and particularly her foster-mother Teresa, owner of the mill, who had adopted her as an orphan. She thanks Alessio, who had composed the wedding song and organised the celebrations, wishing him well in his courtship of Lisa, who continues to reject his advances. Elvino arrives, having stopped on his way at his mother’s grave to ask her blessing on Amina. He gives Amina his mother’s ring and they exchange vows.
A stranger arrives, asking the way to the castle. Lisa points out that it is getting late and he will not reach it before dark and offers him lodging at her inn. The newcomer, who surprises the villagers by his familiarity with the locality, asks about the celebrations and admires Amina, who reminds him of a girl he had loved long ago. He admits to having once stayed in the castle, whose lord has been dead for four years. When Teresa explains that his son had vanished some years previously, the stranger assures them that he is alive and will return.
As darkness approaches the villagers warn him that it is time to be indoors to avoid the village phantom, but he is not superstitious and assures them that they will soon be free of the apparition. Elvino is jealous of the stranger’s admiration of Amina; he is jealous even of the breezes that caress her, but he promises her he will reform.
Scene 2. A room in the inn
Lisa tells the stranger that he has been recognised as Rodolfo, the long-lost son of the count, and warns him that the village is preparing a formal welcome. Meanwhile she will be the first to pay her respects. She is flattered when he begins a flirtation with her, but runs out, dropping a handkerchief, when a sound is heard outside.
It is Amina, who enters the room, walking in her sleep. Rodolfo, realising that her nocturnal wanderings have given rise to the story of the village phantom, is about to take advantage of her helpless state, but is struck by her obvious innocence and refrains. She falls asleep on the sofa and he goes outside as the villagers are heard advancing on the inn to welcome their new lord. Lisa points to the sleeping Amina and Elvino, believing her faithless, rejects her in fury. Only Teresa believes in her innocence.
Scene 1. A wood
On their way to ask the count to attest to Amina’s innocence, the villagers meet Amina and Teresa, on a similar mission. Elvino continues to reject Amina, even when the count sends a message that she is innocent. Elvino is not convinced and takes back the ring, though he is unable to tear her image from his heart.
Scene 2. The village, as in Act I
Elvino has decided to marry Lisa. They are about to go to the church when Rodolfo tries to explain that Amina is innocent because she had not come to his room awake – she is a sonnambulist, a sleepwalker, but Elvino refuses to believe him.
Teresa begs the villagers to be quiet, because Amina has at last fallen into an exhausted sleep. Learning of the impending marriage, she confronts Lisa, who says that she has never been found alone in a man’s room. Teresa produces the handkerchief Lisa had dropped. The Count refuses to comment, but continues to assert Amina’s virtue. Elvino demands proof, which is dramatically produced when Amina is seen walking in her sleep across the high, dangerously unstable mill bridge. Rodolfo warns that to wake her would be fatal, so all watch as she relives her betrothal and her grief at Elvino’s rejection. When she reaches the other side safely, Elvino calls to her and she wakes to find herself in his arms, to the rejoicing of all.
Scene 1. The grand hall of the palace of the Duke of Mantua
A ball is in progress. The duke tells Borsa about a beautiful girl who has caught his eye in church, but to whom he has not spoken. His attention is caught by the appearance of the Countess Ceprano and he expounds his philosophy that all women are alike; he can give his heart to one as readily as another and constancy is a bore. His approaches to the countess are frustrated by her nervousness of her jealous husband, until the hunchbacked jester Rigoletto distracts the count and allows the duke to slip off with the countess.
In Rigoletto’s temporary absence Marullo has a bit of scandal to tell: he has discovered that Rigoletto has a mistress. Rigoletto enrages Ceprano by his lack of subtlety in suggesting to the duke that he dispose of the jealous husband by cutting off his head. The courtiers are tired of Rigoletto’s tricks and gibes and plan to be revenged on him.
Monterone bursts in demanding to be heard. Taunted by Rigoletto for his concern about his daughter’s lost honor, he curses the duke and Rigoletto – to the superstitious horror of the latter.
Scene 2. A street with Rigoletto’s house on one side and Ceprano’s palace on the other
Brooding on the curse, Rigoletto is accosted by Sparafucile, a killer for hire, offering his services and (like the courtiers, thinking that Rigoletto keeps a mistress) pointing out that Rigoletto has a rival. Rigoletto dismisses him, but takes note of where he may be found if needed. He reflects that he is no better than Sparafucile, who kills with the sword, as he does with his tongue. A deformed man, forced to amuse others for his existence, he blames the duke and the court for his own wickedness.
Only in his home is he another, better man. He tenderly embraces his daughter Gilda. He evades her questions about his life and family, remembring the dead wife who had loved him despite his deformity. He tells Gilda that she is everything to him and is terrfiied when she begs to be allowed to leave the house. He summons her duenna Giovanna and instructs her to look to his daughter’s safety
He goes outside to investigate a noise and the duke slips in and hides, throwing a purse to Giovanna to ensure her silence. Having found no one, Rigoletto bids his daugther farewell – to the surprise of the duke, who had been unaware that Gilda was his jester’s daughter. Gilda confesses to Giovanna that she feels guilty that she has not told her father of the handsome young man she has seen at church. She muses about her love for the stranger, but is alarmed when he suddenly emerges and professes his love. He calms her fears and she admits to her love. He tells her he is a poor student called Gualtier MaldË. Hearing sounds outside he leaves and she reflects on the name of her beloved as she prepares to go to bed.
In the street the courtiers are planning her abduction. Rigoletto, unaccountably nervous, reappears and they pretend they are carrying off Countess Ceprano, enlisting his help to hold the ladder, after blindfolding him. It is only when they have broken into his house and carried off Gilda that he tears off the bandage and realises what has happened, blaming Monterone’s curse for his misfortune.
A room in the duke’s palace
Like Rigoletto, the duke had gone back to the house to find Gilda gone. His concern for her convinces him that this time he is really in love. The courtiers describe their exploit to him and he soon realises it is Gilda they have carried off, and rushes to comfort her with the revelation of his true identity.
When Rigoletto comes in search of Gilda, the courtiers feign indifference. Realising that she is with the duke he first abuses the courtiers, then begs them to restore his daughter. As she emerges in a state of disarray from the duke’s bedroom, he orders the courtiers to leave. Gilda tells him about the young man at church and about how she had been abducted, though making no reference to what has occurred just now. Rigoletto comforts her and promises they will leave Mantua. Monterone, led by on his way to prison, laments that the duke is still untouched by his curse. Rigoletto swears that Monterone will be avenged by him, as Gilda pleads in vain for mercy.
A tumbledown inn in a deserted spot on the banks of the River Mincio Rigoletto has brought Gilda to Sparafucile’s dwelling in an effort to convince her that the duke, whom she still loves, is faithless. They watch as, after proclaiming his belief in the fickleness of women, he makes advances to Sparafucile’s sister Maddalena, who, while pretending disbelief in his extravagant protestations, is not indifferent to him. Rigoletto sends Gilda home to change into men’s clothes and set off for Verona, where he will follow her the next day. Sparafucile collects half his fee – the rest is to be paid when he hands over the duke’s body at midnight.
Gilda returns as a storm begins, and listens as Maddalena pleads with her brother to spare the duke – even insulting his professional pride by suggesting he murder his client, Rigoletto, instead. He agrees that if anyone arrives before midnight he will kill him instead, and Gilda determines to sacrifice herself for the duke. She knocks on the door, is killed and her body thrust into a sack and handed to Rigoletto when he returns.
Refusing Sparafucile’s offer of help, Rigoletto exults in his revenge, only to hear the duke singing in the distance as he leaves. Tearing open the sack, he discovers Gilda on the point of death. She begs his forgiveness for disobeying him, explaining that she is dying to save the duke. Promising to pray for him in heaven with her mother, she dies, leaving Rigoletto to the realisation that the curse has been fulfilled.