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The Story of 'Marie Victoire'

Respighi's opera has four acts, set in France during the revolutionary years. The title character, Marie Victoire de Lanjallay, is a wealthy countess, and the opera opens at the lavish chateau where she lives with her husband, Maurice. Marie is sitting at the harpsichord, singing a pastoral song. Her gardener, Cloteau, warns her that it's a dangerous time to be singing that particular ballad — which was written for an enemy of the Republic.

There's an argument among the servants. Maurice urges Marie to keep singing, but soon there's an angry mob outside, singing the revolutionary song known as the "Carmagnole." When the mob leaves, Maurice and Marie comfort each other in a love duet. But soon, Maurice's close friend Cloriviere arrives with bad news. Maurice's father, in Brittany, is being threatened by revolutionaries.

Without much choice, Maurice decides to risk his life by going to his father's side. He prepares to leave, singing a tender farewell to Marie. Once he's gone, she tries to continue her own song, but the mob returns. They seize Cloriviere and march off, leaving Marie to her thoughts as the act ends quietly.

As ACT TWO begins, Marie has been imprisoned in a jail that was formerly the chapel of a convent. Her gardener, Cloteau, is now among her jailers, but down deep he remains a loyal servant. Marie's fellow inmates include her friend Cloriviere, the poet Simon, and the Marquis Langlade and his wife. They're all being held by the notorious Committee of Public Safety — headed by the revolutionary leader Robespierre.

Langlade tries to lighten the mood by encouraging the prisoners to help stage an impromptu play — and throughout the act, preparations for the play are heard alongside the dark drama of the prison. Marie feels the levity is inappropriate; many among them are surely doomed. And soon enough, an official announcement is made. A number of the inmates, including Cloriviere and Marie herself, have been sentenced to the guillotine.

Cloriviere tells Marie that he has been in love with her for years. Marie resists him. But they both assume her husband Maurice is already dead. Marie is left with Cloriviere as her only source of emotional support.

Cloteau is saddened that he is now among Marie's captors, but Marie forgives him, knowing that he has little choice in the matter. She leaves Cloteau, and goes to another room, with Cloriviere at her side.

After a time, Marie returns. Cloriviere has been led off to his execution. Marie's expression, and her music, suggest that at the last moment, she gave in to Cloriviere's passion, and is now ashamed.

Some time passes, shots are heard, and there's a commotion outside. Robespierre has been assassinated. With that news, the prisoners are freed and rush out — all but Marie. Left alone and sobbing, she sings that even the guillotine would have been better than what she's now facing: a life of loneliness and disgrace.

ACT THREE beings six years later. Marie is running a modest boutique in Paris, selling hats. She has a young son, Georges, from her one night with Cloriviere. And Cloteau is still with her, having remained loyal to Marie all along.

As she remembers her husband, Maurice, Marie gets the startling news that Cloriviere is still alive, having somehow avoided the guillotine, and he's coming to visit before leaving France for good.

When he arrives, and sees Marie, Cloriviere bursts into tears — and meets his son, Georges, for the first time. Cloriviere had also hoped for some comfort from Marie — but she still regrets what they did together, and can't forgive him — or herself. Cloriviere leaves, still desperately unhappy.

Then, Marie gets an even more unexpected surprise. There's a knock at the door, and it's Maurice, her husband. He also escaped the revolution, and spent years hiding in America. They share a romantic reunion, but they're interrupted when Georges wakes up. Maurice wants to know if the child is his son — and Marie admits that he's not.

Horses are heard outside, and Cloriviere returns suddenly, running from the authorities. He says he's been caught in a plot to assassinate Napoleon. Maurice immediately concludes that Cloriviere is the father of Marie's child. The two men confront each other, and Cloriviere is forced to leave.

The police arrive and promptly accuse Maurice of Cloriviere's crime. Feeling that he's lost Marie, and has no future, Maurice accepts the blame. The police ransack the boutique and drag Maurice away, with Marie calling after him.

ACT FOUR takes place in a courtroom, where Maurice is being tried for conspiracy. Marie appeals to Maurice, but he ignores her, and she passionately admits to her adultery with Cloriviere. Maurice is moved to tears, and onlookers call for him to forgive Marie. He does, and the public then demands his exoneration. It's obvious that Cloriviere is the real criminal, and Cloteau takes the stand to confirm this.

Suddenly, Cloriviere himself comes forward to confess his guilt. Both Marie and Maurice forgive him. But he remains defiant. Cloriviere loudly denounces the authorities, then seizes a pistol from one of the courtroom's officers, and shoots himself to death as the opera ends.

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