Gounod Takes on His Own Past, in 'Cinq-Mars''
The opera has four acts, all set in 17th-century France -- the time of King Louis XIII, his fearsome henchman Cardinal Richelieu . . . and the Three Musketeers! Though the Musketeers don't appear in the opera, and Richelieu features only through one of his minions.
Still, the opera is based loosely on historical events and people. For example, the title character did exist; he was the Marquis of Cinq-Mars. And the Marquis did have a close friend called François de Thou, as he does in the opera. The leading female character, the Princess Marie Gonzague, was also an historical figure though, unlike in the opera, she and Cinq-Mars apparently were not real-life lovers.
ACT ONE begins in the castle of the Marquis of Cinq-Mars -- who is becoming an important figure in the French nobility. He's also the topic of conversation among his guests. Some think he owes his growing influence to his close relationship with the king, Louis XIII. Others think Cinq-Mars is more indebted to the powerful Cardinal Richelieu.
For the moment, at least, Cinq-Mars is unconcerned with political alliances. It seems he's in love, with the Princess Gonzague. He admits this to his friend, de Thou, though both men worry that the affair may prove dangerous.
The Princess soon arrives, along with Father Joseph, an emissary from Cardinal Richelieu. The Princess greets Cinq-Mars warmly, and Father Joseph has announcements. He says that Cinq-Mars has been summoned to the royal court, and that a marriage has been arranged for Princess Marie, with the King of Poland. Cinq-Mars and Marie aren't sure what to make of all this, and quietly agree to meet later in the evening.
When the guests have all departed, Marie hopes for a peaceful and loving future, in the opera's most famous number, the aria "Nuit resplendissante" -- "resplendent night." After that, Cinq-Mars joins her, and their love duet ends the first act.
ACT TWO begins in the private apartments of Louis XIII. A group of noblemen and courtesans, including the Viscount Fontrailles and the courtesan Marie Delorme, are deep in discussion. They've noticed the king's close relationship with the nobleman Cinq-Mars. But they're concerned that Cinq-Mars is also being observed by Richelieu, who is no friend to the nobility -- and they wonder which faction will prevail. Marion decides to organize a ball, giving the noblemen a chance to plot a move against Richelieu.
Cinq-Mars soon appears at court, followed by Princess Marie, and the lovers are reunited. But Richelieu's emissary Father Joseph also arrives. Until now, it seemed as though the king approved of Marie's relationship with Cinq-Mars, and would tacitly allow them to marry. But Father Joseph says Richelieu won't sanctify the union. He prefers the plan for Marie to marry the King of Poland.
Later, the ball is underway at the home of Marie Delorme. There's entertainment, including a pastoral ballet, and readings from a new novel. And, as planned, politics are discussed.
Fontrailles is convinced that Cinq-Mars will soon join the noble cause against Richelieu. He's right. When Cinq-Mars arrives, he says Richelieu's influence on the king has grown destructive, and that a plot against the Cardinal is now justified. He also admits that he's been in contact with Spain, implying that if needed, Spanish armies will assist the cause. Cinq-Mars' friend de Thou warns him that approaching a foreign power could jeopardize the whole plot, but Cinq-Mars thinks it's worth the risk.
ACT THREE opens outside a chapel, where the conspirators are about to gather. Cinq-Mars' lover, the Princess Marie, appears, and she and Cinq-Mars agree to be married -- defying Richelieu.
When the two have gone, Richelieu's henchman Father Joseph appears with a spy called Eustache. The spy knows all about the plot against Richelieu -- including Cinq-Mars' contact with Spain. Joseph quickly finds Marie and confronts her with the Eustache's revelations, telling her there's no hope for Cinq-Mars. He'll be arrested, and executed for treason.
That is, unless Marie is willing to cooperate. The king is off on a hunt with the ambassador from Poland, and they're due back shortly. The ambassador will ask for Marie's response to the Polish king's proposal. Father Joseph says her answer may mean life or death for Cinq-Mars. When the king returns with his party, Marie sees little choice. She agrees to the arranged marriage.
ACT FOUR takes place in a prison, where Cinq-Mars is awaiting execution. He knows about Marie's impending marriage, yet comforts himself by imagining their time together. Unexpectedly, Marie herself then appears. She explains how she was blackmailed by Richelieu and Father Joseph, and says she has always loved Cinq-Mars.
Then there's another surprise visitor -- Cinq-Mars' friend, François de Thou. He has a plan to help Cinq-Mars escape the next day. But Father Joseph has discovered that plot, as well, and announces that Cinq-Mars will be executed at sunrise. After Cinq-Mars and de Thou sing a final duet, soldiers arrive. Cinq-Mars is led to the gallows as the opera ends.