The opera’s characters (in order of appearance)
- Father Jean Louis de Cheverus (tenor), a French immigrant and Boston parish priest, challenges the Attorney General to allow him to deliver the men’s funeral oration. Escaping revolution in his homeland, he finds himself facing upheaval—and forced to travel incognito—in his adopted country. [Historical figure]
- Yvette (mezzo-soprano), Father Cheverus’s West Indian housekeeper, cautions him against taking action that could jeopardize their fragile position in Massachusetts. [Fictional creation]
- Finola Daley (soprano) is Dominic Daley’s wife. A fierce and determined advocate for her husband, she speaks the truth of her mind to both Cheverus and the Attorney General. [Fictional creation]
- Dominic Daley (tenor), one of the two men accused of murder, is an easygoing, jovial man of trust and faith. [Historical figure]
- Jamey Halligan (baritone), one of the two men accused of the murder, is a womanizer, atheist, and cynic who repels Cheverus’ attempts to confront him but ultimately draws close to Cheverus in a moment of mutual confession.[Historical figure]
- Attorney General Sullivan (bass), who argued the case against Daley and Halligan, is convinced of the men’s guilt and proudly believes he stands for justice. [Historical figure]
- Laertes Fuller (mezzo-soprano) is the 14 year-old boy whose eyewitness testimony damns Daley and Halligan to the gallows. [Historical figure]
- Bridie (soprano) is Halligan’s old flame from Ireland—a woman he loved and abandoned and who now haunts his imagination. [Fictional creation]]
- The Widow Clark (mezzo-soprano), an outcast in Northampton, gives support to Finola Daley.[Fictional creation]
- The Chorus, central to the opera, represents the community of Massachusetts at 1806, through music that is at times darkly comic and at times haunting.
Scene 1: Parish House, Holy Cross church, Boston.
Finola Daley arrives, wanting to see Father Cheverus. Yvette, the housekeeper, attempts to turn her away, but admits her after Finola’s insistence. Cheverus enters and welcomes the young woman, whose husband is one of the convicted Irishmen whose execution is but a few days away. She asks Cheverus to preach the public “funeral” oration at the execution in lieu of the Protestant preacher the state has appointed, but Cheverus is reluctant to intercede with the Attorney General. She presents a letter written by the convicts and pleads with Cheverus to join her on her journey to Northampton the next day. After Finola leaves, Yvette cautions Cheverus against doing anything more to provoke anti-Catholic feeling, given the potentially devastating effects it could have on their lives.
Scene 2: The Attorney General’s Mansion, Boston. Later that day.
Cheverus makes his case to haughty Attorney General James Sullivan about preaching the funeral oration. Sullivan is dismissive, and recounts the overwhelming evidence against the men presented at the trial, which we see in brief flashbacks, concluding with the damning testimony of young Laertes Fuller, a boy who saw the two men with the dead man’s horse shortly after the time of the murder. Sullivan is loath to make exceptions in “this land of law and virtue.” Cheverus reminds Sullivan of his own Irish Catholic forebears, which provokes Sullivan’s wrath. In the strongest terms, he warns Cheverus against traveling to Northampton lest it be seen as an incitement to violence.
Scene 3: Parish House, Holy Cross church, Boston. Later that day.
Cheverus, shaken, returns home. In prayer, he reflects on his own weakness and cowardice, and resolves to go to Northampton: though the men may be guilty, he is resolved to do his duty and, by hearing their last confessions, save two souls for God. The scene concludes with Cheverus preparing for travel in the face of Yvette’s warnings.
Scene 4: Northampton Jail. Next day.
In a jail cell in Northampton, Daley and Halligan await their execution, which is two days away, with grim humor. Daley expresses his faith in God and love for Finola, whom he misses dearly. Halligan scoffs at Daley’s rosy outlook, calling all religion “a cruel and bloody joke,” then catalogues the many, many girls he’s known in his rakish life while Daley sings an old Irish tune with which he courted Finola. The tune evokes a reverie for Halligan, summoning Bridie, an old love who elusively speaks of a moment they shared in Ireland. The reverie is broken by macabre voices in the distance. The Turnkey reveals that throngs are descending upon Northampton by the thousands for the weekend’s coming execution. The scene transitions into the ghoulish Chorus of these throngs, who relish the “Swinging of the Bones.”
Scene 5: The streets of Northampton. Same evening.
The stagecoach deposits Cheverus and Finola in Northampton that same afternoon. With Finola nursing her baby and Cheverus not in his habit, they appear to be a young married couple. The crowds eye them suspiciously with a chorus of: “Where you from?” A drunken man taunts and harasses them, but he is put in his place by Finola. Night falls. Turned down by all for a place to lodge, Cheverus and Finola are approached by the Widow Clark, who offers them a bed for the night, for a price. The Widow expresses sympathy for the condemned Irishmen, and suggests, based upon rumors she has heard, the men might well be innocent. Finola accepts her offer of a bed. Cheverus, drinking from the Widow’s whisky bottle, stumbles around in the meadow down by the Connecticut River. As the Widow sings a tender lullaby to Finola’s baby boy, Cheverus becomes increasingly drunk and disoriented, cursing and charging at a group of soldiers who confront him in the dark marshes. Wounded by the soldiers, he tumbles to the ground as the act ends.
Scene 6: Northampton Jail. Next day, dawn.
The soldiers deposit Father Cheverus in the jail. Daley expresses thanks for the priest’s risks in making the journey. Cheverus offers to hear confessions; Halligan demurs. Daley enumerates a list of minor sins, but regarding the crime is silent, even after Cheverus’s promptings. Sullivan arrives to berate Cheverus for his disobedience of orders, confining him to the jail until after the execution. Finola rushes in, bearing rumors from the Widow Clark (with whom she has left the baby) and confronting Sullivan with suppression of evidence at the trial. Their argument brings more flashback testimony from Laertes, this time appearing much less credible. Cheverus is overcome with remorse for having presumed the men guilty. Sullivan is pushed grudgingly to speak to the governor about “these new rumors.” Sullivan departs, ordering Finola to leave and Cheverus to remain. As the men sit in individual thought, Bridie appears once more to Halligan, this time visibly pregnant.
Scene 7: Northampton Jail. Same day, nightfall.
Cheverus breaks the reverie, asking to speak with Halligan, who again declines confession. Cheverus explains that he only wishes to become better acquainted. Halligan is initially dubious, but as Cheverus gains his confidence he reveals his concealed love for and abandonment of Bridie and the child he has never met. Cheverus suggests writing a final letter to Bridie, and in turn confesses his long-secret denial of the priesthood to save his own life and escape from France. Wishing aloud he had died a martyrs death, Cheverus is transfixed by Halligan’s response: it was better to survive to help Daley — and him. Sullivan arrives with the crushing news that the appeal to the governor has been denied.
Scene 8: Streets of Northampton. Next day, morning.
As the procession of the condemned nears the scaffold, Finola is able to show Daley their baby as he passes by. Cheverus, who has after all been permitted to accompany the convicts, promises Daley he will protect the welfare of his family. Cheverus faces down Sullivan and demands to be allowed to speak in place of the minister. Sullivan relents. Cheverus addresses the crowd and shames those who are drawn to this spectacle. The prisoners are led to the scaffold and read their declaration of innocence. Halligan gives Cheverus a final letter to post to Bridie. The public, which includes Sullivan, is moved by the dignity of the prisoners.