In 1904, a U.S. Naval officer, Pinkerton, rents a house on a hill in Nagasaki, Japan for him and his soon-to-be wife, "Butterfly". Her real name is Ciocio-san,
(cio-cio, pronounced "chocho": the Japanese word for "butterfly" is
chōchō). She is a 15-year-old Japanese girl whom he is marrying for convenience, since he intends to leave her once he finds a proper American wife, and since Japanese divorce laws are very lax. The wedding is to take place at the house, and Butterfly is so excited to marry an American that earlier, she secretly converted from Japanese religion to Christianity. After the wedding ceremony, her uninvited uncle, a bonze, who has found out about her conversion, comes to the house, curses her and orders all the guests to leave, which they do while renouncing her. Pinkerton and Butterfly sing a love duet and prepare to spend their first night together.
Three years later, Butterfly is still waiting for Pinkerton to return, as he had left shortly after their wedding. Her maid Suzuki keeps trying to convince her he is not coming back, but she will not listen to her. Goro, the marriage broker who arranged her marriage, keeps trying to marry her off again, but she won't listen to him either. The American Consul, Sharpless, comes to the house with a letter which he has received from Pinkerton in which he is asked to break some news to Butterfly that he is coming back to Japan, but he cannot bring himself to finish it, because Butterfly becomes very excited to hear that Pinkerton is coming back. Sharpless asks Butterfly what she would do if Pinkerton were not to return. She then reveals that she gave birth to Pinkerton's son after he had left and asks Sharpless to tell him.
From the hill house, Butterfly sees Pinkerton's ship arriving in the harbour. She and Suzuki prepare for his arrival, and then they wait. Suzuki and the child fall asleep, but Butterfly stays up all night waiting for him to arrive.
Suzuki wakes up in the morning and Butterfly finally falls asleep. Sharpless and Pinkerton arrive at the house, along with Pinkerton's new American wife, Kate. They have come because Kate has agreed to raise the child. But, as Pinkerton sees how Butterfly has decorated the house for his return, he realizes he has made a huge mistake. He admits that he is a coward and cannot face her, leaving Suzuki, Sharpless and Kate to break the news to Butterfly. Agreeing to give up her child if Pinkerton comes himself to see her, she then prays to statues of her ancestral gods, says goodbye to her son, and blindfolds him. She places a small American flag into his hands and goes behind a screen, cutting her throat with her father's hara-kiri knife. Pinkerton rushes in. He is too late.
Scene 1: The gardens of Lammermoor Castle
Normanno, captain of the castle guard, and other retainers are searching for an intruder. He tells Enrico that he believes that the man is Edgardo, and that he comes to the castle to meet Lucia. It is confirmed that Edgardo is indeed the intruder. Enrico reaffirms his hatred for the Ravenswood family and his determination to end the relationship.
Scene 2: By a fountain at the entrance to the park, beside the castle
Lucia waits for Edgardo. In her famous aria Regnava nel Silenzio, Lucia tells her maid Alisa that she has seen the ghost of a girl killed on the very same spot by a jealous Ravenswood ancestor. Alisa tells Lucia that the apparition is a warning and that she must give up her love for Edgardo. Edgardo enters; for political reasons, he must leave immediately for France. He hopes to make his peace with Enrico and marry Lucia. Lucia tells him this is
impossible, and instead they take a sworn vow of marriage and exchange rings. Edgardo leaves.
Scene 1: Lord Ashton's apartments in Lammermoor Castle
Preparations have been made for the imminent wedding of Lucia to Arturo. Enrico worries about whether Lucia will really submit to the wedding. He shows his sister a forged letter seemingly proving that Edgardo has forgotten her and taken a new lover. Enrico leaves Lucia to further persuasion this time by Raimondo, Lucia's chaplain and tutor, that she should renounce her vow to Edgardo, for the good of the family, and marry Arturo.
Scene 2: A hall in the castle
Arturo arrives for the marriage. Lucia acts strangely, but Enrico explains that this is due to the death of her mother. Arturo signs the marriage contract, followed reluctantly by Lucia. At that point Edgardo suddenly appears in the hall. Raimondo prevents a fight, but he shows Lucia's signature on the marriage contract to Edgardo. He curses her, demanding that they return their rings to each other. He tramples his ring on the ground, before being forced out of the castle.
Scene 1: The Wolf's Crag
Enrico visits Edgardo to challenge him to a duel. He tells him that Lucia is already enjoying her bridal bed. Edgardo agrees to fight him. They will meet later by the graveyard of the Ravenswoods, near the Wolf's Crag.
Scene 2: A Hall in Lammermoor Castle
Raimondo interrupts the marriage celebrations to tell the guests that Lucia has gone mad and killed her bridegroom Arturo. Lucia enters. In the aria 'Il dolce suono' she imagines being with Edgardo, soon to be happily married. Enrico enters and at first threatens Lucia but later softens when he realizes her condition. Lucia collapses. Raimondo blames Normanno for precipitating the whole tragedy.
Scene 3: The graveyard of the Ravenswood family
Edgardo is resolved to kill himself on Enrico's sword. He learns that Lucia is dying and then Raimondo comes to tell him that she has already died. Edgardo stabs himself with a dagger, hoping to be reunited with Lucia in heaven.
I. At a ball in his palace, the Duke sings of a life of pleasure with as many women as possible (Questa o quella - "This woman or that"). He has seen an unknown beauty in church and desires to possess her, but he also wishes to seduce the Countess of
Ceprano. Rigoletto, the Duke's hunchbacked court jester, mocks the husbands of the ladies to whom the Duke is paying attention, and advises the Duke to get rid of them by prison or death. Marullo informs the noblemen that Rigoletto has a "lover", and the noblemen cannot believe it. The noblemen resolve to take vengeance on
Rigoletto. Subsequently Rigoletto mocks Count Monterone, whose daughter the Duke had seduced. Count Monterone is arrested at the Duke's order and curses the Duke and
Rigoletto. The curse genuinely terrifies Rigoletto.
Thinking of the curse, Rigoletto approaches his house and is accosted by the assassin
Sparafucile, who offers his services. Rigoletto contemplates the similarities between the two of them
(Pari siamo! - "We are alike!"); Sparafucile kills men with his sword, and Rigoletto uses "a tongue of malice" to stab his victims. Rigoletto opens a door in the wall and returns home to his daughter
Gilda. They greet each other warmly (Figlia!" "Mio padre! - "Daughter!" "My father!"). Rigoletto has been concealing his daughter from the Duke and the rest of the city, and she does not know her father's occupation. Since he has forbidden her to appear in public, she has been nowhere except to church and does not even know her own father's name.
When Rigoletto has gone, the Duke appears and overhears Gilda confess to her nurse Giovanna that she feels guilty for not having told her father about a student she had met at the church, but that she would love him even more if he were poor. Just as she declares her love, the Duke enters, overjoyed.
Gilda, alarmed, calls for Giovanna, but the Duke has sent her away. He convinces Gilda of his love (E il sol dell'anima - "Love is the sunshine of the soul"), and she responds. When she asks for his name, he hesitantly calls himself Gualtier
Maldè. Hearing sounds and fearing that her father has returned, Gilda sends the Duke away after they quickly repeat their vows of love to each other
(Addio, addio - "Farewell, farewell"). Alone, Gilda meditates on her love for the student
(Gualtier Maldè! ... Caro nome - "Dearest name").
II. The Duke is concerned that Gilda has disappeared (Ella mi fu rapita! - "She was stolen from me!" and Parmi veder le lagrime - "I seem to see tears"). The noblemen then enter and inform him that they have captured Rigoletto's mistress. By their description, he recognizes it to be Gilda, and he rushes off to the room where she is held (Possente amor mi chiama - "Mighty love beckons me"). Pleased by the Duke's strange excitement, the courtiers now make sport with Rigoletto, who enters singing. He tries to find Gilda by pretending to be uncaring, as he fears she may fall into the hands of the Duke. Finally, he admits that he is in fact seeking his daughter and asks the courtiers to return her to him (Cortigiani, vil razza dannata - "Accursed race of courtiers"). The men beat up Rigoletto after his attempt to run into the room Gilda is being held in. Gilda rushes in and begs her father to send the people away. The men leave the room believing Rigoletto has gone mad. Gilda describes to her father what has happened to her in the palace (Tutte le feste al tempio - "On all the blessed days"). Rigoletto demands vengeance against the Duke, while Gilda pleads for him (Duet: Sì! Vendetta, tremenda vendetta! - "Yes! Revenge, terrible revenge!").
III. A portion of Sparafucile's house is seen, with two rooms open to the view of the audience. Rigoletto and Gilda, who still loves the Duke, arrive outside. The Duke's voice can be heard (La donna è mobile- "Woman is fickle") laying out the infidelity and fickle nature of women. Rigoletto makes Gilda realize that it is the Duke who is in the assassin's house and that he is attempting to seduce Sparafucile's sister, Maddalena.(Bella figlia dell'amore - "Sweet daughter of love")
Rigoletto bargains with the assassin, who is ready to murder his guest for money, and offers him 20 scudi for killing the Duke. He orders his daughter to put on a man's clothes in order to prepare to go to Verona and states that he plans to follow later. With falling darkness, a thunderstorm approaches and the Duke determines to remain in the house. Sparafucile assigns to him the ground floor sleeping quarters.
Gilda, who still loves the Duke despite knowing him to be unfaithful, returns dressed as a man. She overhears Maddalena begging for the Duke's life, and Sparafucile promises her that if by midnight another can be found in place of the Duke, he will spare the Duke's life. Gilda resolves to sacrifice herself for the Duke and enters the house. She is immediately mortally wounded and collapses.
At midnight, when Rigoletto arrives with money, he receives a corpse wrapped in a sack, and rejoices in his triumph. Weighting it with stones, he is about to cast the sack into the river when he hears the voice of the Duke singing a reprise of his "La donna è mobile" aria. Bewildered, Rigoletto opens the sack and, to his despair, discovers his mortally wounded daughter. For a moment, she revives and declares she is glad to die for her beloved (V'ho ingannato - "Father, I deceived you"). She dies in his arms. Rigoletto's wildest fear materializes when he cries out in horror: "The curse!"
Later, the hostile noblemen outside the walled garden (believing Gilda to be the jester's mistress) get ready to abduct the helpless girl. Convincing Rigoletto that they are actually abducting the Countess Ceprano, they blindfold him and use him to help with the abduction. He assists them, and Gilda is carried away by the noblemen. Upon realizing that it was in fact Gilda who was carried away, Rigoletto collapses, remembering the curse.
Place: A convent near Siena.
Time: The latter part of the 17th century.
The opera opens with scenes showing typical aspects of life in the convent — all the sisters sing hymns, the Monitor scolds two lay-sisters, everyone gathers for recreation in the courtyard. The sisters rejoice because, as the Mistress of Novices explains, this is the first of three evenings that occur each year when the setting sun strikes the fountain to turn its water golden. This event causes the sisters to remember a sister who has died, Bianca Rosa. Sister Genevieve suggests they pour some of the golden water onto her tomb.
The nuns then discuss their desires — while the Monitor believes that any desire at all is wrong, Sister Genevieve confesses that she wishes to see lambs again because she used to be a shepherdess when she was a girl, and Sister Dolcina wishes for something good to eat. Sister Angelica claims to have no desires, but as soon as she says so, the nuns begin gossiping — Sister Angelica has lied, because her true desire is to hear from her wealthy, noble family, whom she has not heard from in seven years. The rumors have it that she was sent to the convent in punishment.
The conversation is interrupted by the Infirmary Sister, who begs Sister Angelica to make a herbal remedy — Sister Angelica's specialty. Two tourières then arrive, bringing supplies to the convent, as well as news that a grand coach is waiting outside the convent. Sister Angelica immediately becomes nervous and upset, thinking rightly that someone in her family has come to visit her. The Abbess chastises Sister Angelica for her inappropriate excitement and then goes on to announce the visitor, the Princess, Sister Angelica's aunt.
The Princess explains that Angelica's sister is to be married and that Angelica must sign a document renouncing her claim to her inheritance. Angelica replies that she has repented for her sin, but there is one thing she cannot offer in sacrifice to the Virgin — she cannot forget the memory of her illegitimate son who was taken from her seven years ago. The Princess refuses to speak, but finally informs Sister Angelica that her son died of fever two years ago. Sister Angelica, devastated, signs the document and collapses in tears. The Princess leaves.
Sister Angelica is seized by a heavenly vision — she believes she hears her son calling for her to meet him in paradise. She makes herself a poison and drinks it, but realizes that in committing suicide, she has committed a mortal sin and has damned herself to eternal separation from her son. She begs the Virgin Mary for mercy and, as she dies, she sees a miracle: the Virgin Mary appears, along with Sister Angelica's son, who runs to embrace her.