The town square
An unnamed king of Sicily leaves his country for a journey to Naples and hands over to the appointed Regent Friedrich full authority to exercise the royal power in order to effect a complete reform in the social habits of his capital, which had provoked the indignation of the Council. The servants of the public authority busily shut up or pull down the houses of popular amusement in a suburb of Palermo, and carry off the inmates as prisoners. The populace oppose this first step, and much scuffling ensues.
Luzio, a young nobleman and juvenile scapegrace, seems inclined to thrust himself forward as leader of the mob, and at once finds an occasion for playing a more active part in the cause of the oppressed people on discovering his friend Claudio being led away to prison. From him he learns that, in pursuance of some musty old law unearthed by Friedrich, he is to suffer the penalty of death for a certain love escapade in which he is involved. His sweetheart, union with whom had been prevented by the enmity of their parents, has borne him a child. Friedrich's puritanical zeal joins cause with the parents' hatred; he fears the worst, and sees his only hope for mercy if his sister Isabella, by her entreaties, can melt the Regent's hard heart. Claudio implores his friend at once to seek out Isabella in the convent of the Sisters of St. Elizabeth, which she has recently entered as novice.
Isabella is in confidential intercourse with her friend Marianne, also a novice. Marianne reveals to her friend, from whom she has long been parted, the unhappy fate which has brought her to the place. Under vows of eternal fidelity she had been persuaded to a secret liaison with a man of high rank. But finally, when in extreme need she found herself not only forsaken, but threatened by her betrayer, she discovered him to be the mightiest man in the state, none other than the King's Regent himself. Isabella's indignation finds vent in impassioned words, and is only pacified by her determination to forsake a world in which so vile a crime can go unpunished.
When now Luzio brings her tidings of her own brother's fate, Isabella's disgust at her brother's misconduct is turned at once to scorn for the villainy of the hypocritical Regent, who presumes so cruelly to punish the comparatively venial offense of her brother, which, at least, was not stained by treachery. Her violent outburst imprudently reveals her to Luzio in a seductive aspect; smitten with sudden love, he urges her to quit the convent for ever and to accept his hand. She contrives to check his boldness, but resolves at once to avail herself of his escort to the Regent's court of justice.
Several persons are charged by the sbirro captain with offenses against morality. The earnestness of the situation becomes more marked when the gloomy form of Friedrich strides through the inrushing and unruly crowd, commanding silence, and he himself undertakes the hearing of Claudio's case in the sternest manner possible. The implacable judge is already on the point of pronouncing sentence when Isabella enters, and requests, before them all, a private interview with the Regent.
In this interview she behaves with noble moderation towards the dreaded yet despised man before her, and appeals at first only to his mildness and mercy. His interruptions merely serve to stimulate her ardor: she speaks of her brother's offense in melting accents, and implores forgiveness. Friedrich can no longer contain himself, and promises to grant her petition at the price of her own love. Filled with indignation at such villainy, she cries to the people through doors and windows to come in, that she may unmask the hypocrite before the world. By a few significant hints, Friedrich, with frantic energy, succeeds in making Isabella realize the impossibility of her plan. But a few words on her part suffice to transport the Regent himself with ecstasy; for in a whisper she promises to grant his desire, and that on the following night she shall send him such a message as shall ensure his happiness.
And so ends the first act in a whirl of excitement.
Isabella visits her brother in his cell. She reveals Friedrich's shameful proposal to him, and asks if he would wish to save his life at the price of his sister's dishonour. Then follow Claudio's fury and fervent declaration of his readiness to die; whereupon, the unhappy man declines from a state of melancholy to one of weakness. Isabella hesitates in dismay when she sees him fall in this way. Disgusted, she springs to her feet, and declares that to the shame of his death he has further added her most hearty contempt.
After having handed him over again to his gaoler, her mood once more changes swiftly to one of wanton gaiety. True, she resolves to punish the waverer by leaving him for a time in uncertainty as to his fate; but stands firm by her resolve to rid the world of the abominable seducer who dared to dictate laws to his fellow-men.
She tells Marianne that she must take her place at the nocturnal rendezvous, at which Friedrich so treacherously expected to meet her (Isabella), and sends Friedrich an invitation to this meeting. In order to entangle the latter even more deeply in ruin, she stipulates that he must come disguised and masked and fixes the rendezvous in one of those pleasure resorts which he has just suppressed.
To the madcap Luzio, whom she also desires to punish, she relates the story of Friedrich's proposal, and her pretended intention of complying with his desires. This she does in a fashion so incomprehensibly light-hearted that Luzio yields to a fit of desperate rage. He swears that, even if the noble maiden herself can endure such shame, he will himself strive by every means in his power to avert it. And, indeed, he arranges things in such a manner that on the appointed evening all his friends and acquaintances assemble at the end of the Corso, as though for the opening of the prohibited carnival procession.
Outside Friedrich's Palace
At nightfall, Luzio appears sings an extravagant carnival song by which means he seeks to stir the crowd to bloody revolt. When a band of sbirri approaches, under Brighella's leadership, to scatter the gay throng, the mutinous project seems on the point of being accomplished. For the present, however, Luzio prefers to yield and to disperse his followers, as he must first of all win the real leader of their enterprise: for here was the spot which Isabella had mischievously revealed to him as the place of her pretended meeting with the Regent.
For Friedrich, Luzio therefore lies in wait. Recognizing him in an elaborate disguise, he blocks his way and, as Friedrich violently breaks loose, is on the point of following him with shouts and drawn sword when, on a sign from Isabella, who is hidden among some bushes, he is himself stopped and led away. Isabella then advances, rejoicing in the thought of having restored the betrayed Marianne to her faithless spouse. Believing that she holds in her hand the promised pardon for her brother, she is just on the point of abandoning all thought of further vengeance when, breaking the seal, to her intense horror she recognizes by the light of a torch that the paper contains but a still more severe order of execution, which, owing to her desire not to disclose to her brother the fact of his pardon, a mere chance had now delivered into her hand, through the agency of the bribed gaoler.
After a hard fight with the tempestuous passion of love, and recognizing his helplessness against this enemy of his peace, Friedrich has in fact already resolved to face his ruin, even though as a criminal, yet still as a man of honor. An hour on Isabella's breast, and then - his own death by the same law whose implacable severity shall also claim Claudio's life. Isabella, perceiving in this conduct only a further proof of the hypocrite's villainy, breaks out once more into a tempest of agonized despair.
Upon her cry for immediate revolt against the scoundrelly tyrant, the people collect together and form a motley and passionate crowd. Luzio, who also returns, counsels the people with stinging bitterness to pay no heed to the woman's fury; he points out that she is only tricking them - for he still believes in her shameless infidelity. Fresh confusion; increased despair of Isabella; suddenly from the background comes the burlesque cry of Brighella for help, who, himself suffering from the pangs of jealousy, has by mistake arrested the masked Regent, and thus led to the latter's discovery. Friedrich is recognised, and Marianne, trembling on his breast, is also unmasked.
Cries of joy burst forth all round; the needful explanations are quickly given, and Friedrich sullenly demands to be set before the judgment-seat of the returning King. Claudio, released from prison by the jubilant populace, informs him that the sentence of death for crimes of love is not intended for all times; messengers arrive to announce the unexpected arrival in harbor of the King; it is resolved to march in full masked procession to meet the beloved Prince, and joyously to pay him homage, all being convinced that he will heartily rejoice to see how ill the gloomy puritanism of Germany is suited to his hot-blooded Sicily.