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Pelias, usurping king of Iolcos and uncle of Jason, son of the rightful king, sent Jason on the dangerous quest for the Golden Fleece at Colchis, hoping that he would be killed. With the ship Argo and a crew consisting of the greatest heroes of Greece Jason reached Colchis, where Medea, a witch, daughter of King Aeetes, fell in love with him and helped him carry out the apparently impossible tasks set by her father.
As they were escaping with the Golden Fleece, Medea cut her brother Absyrtus to pieces and threw them overboard, so that her father had to stop his pursuit and collect the pieces for burial. When they reached Iolcos, Medea caused the death of Pelias by persuading his daughters to kill him, having promised that she would magically restore his youth.
Medea and Jason then took refuge in Corinth, where they lived for some years with their two sons, until Jason tired of Medea and decided to marry the daughter of King Creon of Corinth.
A gallery in Creon's palace
On the eve of her marriage to Jason, Dirce, Creon's daughter, has forebodings. Her father assures Jason that he will protect his sons by Medea from the vengeance of the sons of King Pelias. Jason lays the Golden Fleece at the feet of Dirce and tries to calm her fears by telling her she has nothing to fear from Medea. Creon joins them in praying for a happy marriage.
The captain of the guard announces the arrival of a woman claiming to be a priestess of Apollo, but she reveals herself as Medea, telling the people not to fear her, as her resentment is directed only against Jason. When Creon challenges her, she assures him that he and his have nothing to fear unless he encourages Jason in his desertion of her, but he warns her that any crime will be punished with death.
When she reproaches Jason with ingratitude towards the sacrifices she has made on his account, he answers her mildly, urging her to respect the laws of Corinth, but when she persists, he repudiates her, declaring that they now have nothing in common. She calls on the gods to witness that he will not marry Dirce.
Jason urges her to flee the wrath of Creon which she has aroused and she promises to leave him with a bitter memory before he dies.
A wing of Creon's palace, with the temple of Juno opposite
Medea rages at having been forbidden to see her children again and calls on the Furies to assist her revenge. Her attendant Neris warns her that the people are demanding her blood and that the king supports them. Creon tells her that he will spare her, as requested by Jason, but she must leave the city at once, explaining that he fears her black arts. He does grant her request for a day's grace and she resolves to make good use of it.
Neris fears that she has something terrible in mind as Medea, already determined on the death of Dirce, seeks further ways of punishing Jason, thinking, with a shudder of horror, of killing their children. When Jason offers her comfort and help in her exile, she demands her children. When he refuses, she realises that he loves them and is confirmed in her resolve to kill them. He accedes to her request to be allowed to see them again and promises that they may stay with her till she leaves. He bids her farewell and tells her he wishes her to be happy.
She tells Neris she no longer loves the children, thinking of them only as Jason's. She gives Neris a rich robe and crown, steeped in poison, for her children to take as a present to Dirce. Medea watches as Creon, Jason and Dirce go to the temple for the marriage ceremony, calling on the gods to remember the similar vows Jason had once made to her.
A temple on the crest of a mountain near the palace
Medea waits for her children, still meditating their deaths, but when Neris brings them, she is unable to suppress her maternal feelings until thoughts of Jason rekindle her purpose. Neris reports that Dirce has put on the poisoned robe and crown. Medea overcomes her reluctance to kill the children and as distant cries indicate that the people are coming to kill her in revenge for the death of Dirce, she retreats into the temple with them.
When Jason arrives, at the head of the crowd, Neris tells him of Medea's intentions, but he is too late, as Medea appears on the threshold, dagger in hand, surrounded by the Furies, to tell him the deed is done.
Refusing to let him perform the last rites or even see the bodies, she tells him that she will meet him in Hades and disappears into the air.
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Backstage at the Comédie Française
As the actors and actresses are preparing for the evening's double bill, the Prince de Bouillon and his hanger-on, the Abbé de Chazeuil, appear. They ogle the actresses but their principal interest is the actress Duclos, the prince's mistress and chief professional rival of Adriana Lecouvreur.
Adriana appears, practising her lines. She modestly disclaims the extravagant praise of the visitors, explaining that she is only the instrument by which the lines of the poet are transmitted to the audience. Learning that Duclos is in her dressing room writing a letter, the prince orders the Abbé to get hold of it. The stage manager Michonnet is about to confess his love to Adriana, when she tells him she has a lover - a simple officer in the army of the Count of Saxony, who has returned from the war and will be in the theatre to watch her.
Maurizio appears and after a rapturous reunion Adriana asks about his prospects of promotion, unaware that he is actually the Count of Saxony. They arrange to meet after the play and she gives him a bunch of violets as a pledge. As she goes on stage and he goes to his box the prince and the Abbé reappear from different directions, the latter with the letter written by Duclos. It is apparently for Maurizio, making an assignation for midnight, in the villa given to Duclos by the prince. The prince plans to catch his mistress in her apparent infidelity by giving a party in the villa.
The actors and actresses, who overhear this plan, are gleeful at the situation, as they are aware of something unknown to the prince: that his wife has befriended Duclos and often uses the villa for her own assignations. In this case the letter written by Duclos is on behalf of the princess.
Standing in the wings Michonnet listens to Adriana delivering a monologue, assuaging his unrequited love in admiration of her art. Maurizio, having received the letter, is obliged to keep the tryst, as it concerns his political ambitions, but broods over the necessity of having to break his appointment with Adriana. He makes use of a letter which has to be delivered to her on stage to let her know. After the play the prince invites all the company to his party and Adriana accepts, hoping to meet the Count of Saxony and influence him on Maurizio's behalf.
The villa in which the prince has installed Duclos
The Princess de Bouillon anxiously awaits the tardy Maurizio. She reproaches him for being late and, seeing the violets in his buttonhole, accuses him of loving another. Quickly he says they are for her, and gives them to her. They are interrupted by the arrival of the prince and the Abbé and Maurizio hides her in a closet, promising to see to her escape. Confronted by the prince and Abbé, Maurizio has to accept their assumption that he has had an assignation with Duclos. The prince expresses gratitude: he was tired of Duclos and glad to hand her over to Maurizio.
Adriana arrives and learns that Maurizio is the Count of Saxony. She forgives the deception, but their reunion is interrupted by an argument between Michonnet and the Abbé. In accordance with the prince's orders that no one is to leave the villa, the Abbé is preventing Michonnet from going, but when Michonnet explains that he has urgent business with Duclos the Abbé tells him that she is in the villa, having had an assignation with Maurizio. Michonnet goes in to see her and Maurizio assures Adriana that it is not Duclos and that his meeting was on urgent political business. He enlists her help in getting the woman away, but tells her she must not learn who she is. Michonnet comes out and confirms that it is not Duclos, though has been unable to identify the lady in the dark.
Setting Michonnet to keep watch, Adriana begins to negotiate with the princess, who remains unseen behind her door. Gradually the two women become aware that they are rivals in love and they exchange jealous words. The princess tries to discover Adriana's identity and Adriana, repenting of her helpfulness, calls for lights to see her rival. However, the princess uses a secret door to escape, dropping a bracelet which is picked up by Michonnet.
The Bouillon palace
The princess broods over her unknown rival while the Abbé bustles around preparing a party. His attempts at gallantry are swept aside by the princess. The guests arrive, including Adriana, who is to give a recitation.
The princess recognises her voice and tricks her into revealing her love for Maurizio by pretending he has been wounded. Maurizio arrives and entertains the guests with an account of one of his recent military exploits.
The princess, with malice aforethought, asks Adriana if she knows the identity of Maurizio's latest mistress and Adriana, now suspicious of the princess, produces the bracelet, which the prince identifies as his wife's.
Adriana's recitation is a speech from Racine's Phèdre, which she stresses in such a way as to turn it into a pointed insult to the princess. She withdraws, calling on Maurizio to follow her, but he answers that he will see her in the morning.
Michonnet comes to visit Adriana who has left the stage and is ill, pining for Maurizio who seems to have abandoned her. Her theatre colleagues arrive with gifts for her birthday and at their request, she agrees to return to the stage.
A box arrives, apparently from Maurizio, containing the bunch of violets, now withered. Deeply wounded at such heartlessness, she smells them and throws them into the fire. Michonnet is convinced it is not Maurizio's doing, but the act of a woman and tells Adriana that he has written to Maurizio who, he is sure, will soon return to her. Maurizio arrives and convinces Adriana that his absence was due to a misunderstanding.
He offers her his hand in marriage, but it is too late: the violets had been poisoned by the princess and Adriana dies in the arms of Maurizio and Michonnet.
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