The Marquis of Calatrava has moved his family out of the city to keep his daughter, Leonora, from seeing her foreign lover, Alvaro. The action begins one evening after Leonora bids goodnight to her father. Curra, her maid, prepares for the arrival of Alvaro, with whom Leonora plans to elope. When Leonora hesitates, Curra offers encouragement. Soon after Alvaro arrives, Leonora again wavers, but then is resolved. Before they are able to leave, however, they are discovered. Alvaro offers to surrender his life to the Marquis, who considers the foreigner unworthy of death at his hands. When Alvaro throws down his pistol, it goes off, accidentally killing the Marquis, who curses Leonora with his last breath. Her brother, Carlo, seeing what has happened, vows revenge.
Carlo, Leonora's brother, joins the throng in a seedy neighborhood. He has disguised himself as a student and is determined to find and punish his sister and Alvaro. Preziosilla, always a reliable source of information, arrives and confirms that war has been declared, which all agree is welcome news. A group of religious pilgrims enters the scene, and the assembled crowd joins them in prayer. From the sidelines, Leonora, disguised as a boy, prays for her own survival. The "student" questions Trabuco, a salesman, about the person (Leonora) who came in with him, but Trabuco refuses to talk. When asked about his own identity, the "student," claiming to be a friend of Leonora's brother, relates the events of the prologue. Concluding his tale, he says that Alvaro left the country and Carlo returned to his studies. Preziosilla makes clear that she does not believe his story.
A Religious Community
Leonora, having fled the city, seeks an audience with Father Guardiano of a nearby religious community. When she reveals her identity, he agrees to provide her with sanctuary. She and the members of the community pray together. Guardiano tells the assembly that anyone who approaches or disturbs the solitary penitent will be cursed.
Intermission (20 minutes)
A War Zone
Both Carlo and Alvaro are now serving in the military. Alvaro, tormented by his memories and believing Leonora dead, prays for his own death. Hearing cries in the distance, he intervenes in a brawl, saving Carlo's life. Neither man recognizes the other. Giving each other false names, they pledge eternal friendship. In the next military skirmish, Alvaro, gravely wounded, asks his new friend to burn his papers if he dies. Carlo agrees, but curiosity gets the better of him; although he does not read the forbidden papers, he finds Leonora's picture among Alvaro's things. Meanwhile, the soldiers unwind with their women. When Brother Melitone chastises the group for their behavior, they turn on him. Preziosilla comes to the monk's aid, distracting everyone with a song. Later, when Alvaro has fully recovered from his wounds, Carlo reveals his identity and demands vengeance; they are separated by the camp patrol, and Alvaro resolves to seek peace within the religious community.
A Religious Community
Beggars crowd in, seeking charity from members of the religious community. When Brother Melitone becomes annoyed, the people remark that Father Raphael was kinder. Melitone tells Guardiano he suspects Raphael is hiding a secret. Carlo arrives, having learned that Alvaro has taken orders as Father Raphael. Carlo, intent on avenging his father's death, challenges him to a fight. Alvaro protests that he now follows a new path, but Carlo will not relent. The two fight not far from Leonora's sanctuary; when Carlo is mortally wounded, Alvaro asks the nameless penitent hidden within to hear Carlo's final confession. Leonora rushes to the side of her brother who, in his last act, kills her. The dying Leonora and Guardiano attempt to console Alvaro as he reflects on his destiny.
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