The synopsis below reflects the original version of the opera. Modern performing versions often somewhat adapt this storyline for convenience.Place: ConstanceTime: 1414Events before the opera begins
The following is a summary of events which took place before the first act of the opera, some of which are only revealed in the course of the action.
When he was young, the Jew Eléazar had lived in Italy near Rome and witnessed the condemnation and executions of his sons as heretics by Count Brogni. Eléazar himself was banished and forced to flee to Switzerland.
During his journey, Eléazar found a baby near death, abandoned inside a burnt-out house which turned out to be the home of the Count. Bandits had set fire to the house, attempting to kill the entire family of Brogni but unaware that the Count himself was in Rome at the time.
Eléazar took the child, a girl, and raised her as his own daughter, naming her Rachel. Brogni discovered the ruins of his house and the bodies of his family upon his return. He subsequently became a priest and later a cardinal.
At the beginning of the opera, in 1414 Rachel (now a young woman) is living with her "father" in the city of Constance. The forces of the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund have defeated the Hussites, in battles where Prince Leopold has distinguished himself. The Council of Constance, convened by Antipope John XXIII, has been arranged to resolve Church matters. John XXIII is represented there by Cardinal Gian Francesco Brogni, who was a historical personage. His part in the story of the opera is, however, entirely fictional.Act 5
A large tent supported by Gothic columns
Eléazar and Rachel are brought to the gallows where they will be thrown in a cauldron of boiling water. Rachel is terrified. Eléazar explains that she can be saved if she converts to Christianity. She refuses and climbs to the gallows before him. As the people are singing various prayers, Brogni asks Eléazar if his own daughter is still alive. Eléazar says that she is and when Brogni asks where she can be found, Eléazar points to the cauldron, saying "There she is!" He then climbs to his own death while the Cardinal falls on his knees. The opera ends with a chorus of monks, soldiers and the people singing "It is done and we are avenged on the Jews!"