In a secluded park in Rome on the Banks of the Tiber, Roman senator Cecilio, banished from the city by dictator Lucio Silla, has returned to the city incognito and is waiting for his friend Cinna, a Roman patrician and secret enemy of the dictator. Cecilio enquires after the situation of his betrothed, Giunia, the daughter of Gaius Marius –former head of the Populares party which opposed the dictator– and discovers that Lucio is also in love with Giunia. The tyrant has led her to believe that Cecilio is dead and is holding her captive at his palace. But Cinna, who is preparing a conspiracy of Roman patriots to overthrow Silla, has arranged for the lovers to meet in a nearby
necropolis. Silla, in his palace, confides in his sister Celia and in his friend, the tribune Aufidio, telling them of his love for Giunia and his resentment of Marius’s daughter’s refusal to accept his marriage proposals. Celia considers violence a negative approach and offers to convince Giunia to accept Silla, especially as she now believes Cecilio to be dead. Aufidio shows his cruelty by inciting Silla to punish Giunia severely. A long conversation between Silla and Giunia reveals the proud character of this Roman woman, the daughter
of the great Gaius Marius, who remains true to her betrothed and is willing to die in the face of the dictator’s threats. Silla, not knowing what attitude to adopt, is both irritated by the scorn shown by a ‘mere’ woman and at the same time sensitive to the tenderness she inspires in him. Finally, he decides to act with the utmost cruelty and behave as the tyrant he is. The action moves to the necropolis where Cecilio is waiting to be reunited with Giunia. She arrives with her entourage, who accompany her in an intense funeral chorus. Cecilio appears as if responding to his beloved’s call and though at first she fears he is a ghost or an illusion, she soon realises it is really him and their emotional duo concludes the first act.
In his palace, Silla tells Aufidio of his decision to put Giunia to death as she continues to reject him, but the tribune warns him that the death of Marius’s daughter would only give ammunition to his political enemies and advises him to force her to marry him instead and thereby seal the peace in Rome. Silla, who is of a weaker, more complex character than might be expected in a dictator, agrees to this solution which would also save him the inevitable feelings of remorse. Silla tells Celia –who failed in her attempt to convince Giunia– that he will make Marius’s daughter his wife the same day and declares that he will also order Cinna to marry Celia, which fills his
sister with joy as she has always been in love with the patrician. Cecilio, who believes he has been instructed by the spirit of Marius to take revenge, is on the verge of going to kill Silla, but his friend Cinna stops him, arguing that such an act could cause irreparable harm to Giunia. Cinna, who is driven by political passion, is disconcerted when Celia appears trying to communicate the dictator’s decision to celebrate the double wedding of Silla with Giunia and Celia with Cinna. Giunia, deeply apprehensive because Silla has convened her to appear before the people and the Senate, is willing to resist, but is horrified by Cinna’s advice that she should accept Silla’s wishes and then kill him in their wedding bed. Her sense of honour would never allow her to commit such high treason. She prefers to leave the dictator’s punishment to the gods and shows her concern at the hot-headedness of her beloved Cecilio. On seeing Giunia’s reaction, Cinna decides to assassinate Silla himself. In the palace gardens, Aufidio and Silla are preparing the ceremony before the Senate. Silla again shows his contradictory nature and, when Giunia appears, lovingly asks her to listen to him. But Marius’s daughter is adamant that she would rather die than love him. Cecilio arrives, intent on killing the tyrant rather than letting him force Giunia into an unjust marriage and the two betrothed hold a poignant conversation, as she begs him to flee and not put his life in danger: she will be able to defend herself as she is convinced the gods will protect her. Celia arrives intending to convince her to agree to the wedding, as she does not know that Cecilio is alive and in Rome, and is happy about her brother’s decision to marry her with Cinna. Giunia is left alone and there is an abrupt change between Celia’s innocent happiness and the anguish that now overcomes Marius’s daughter. Fear that her lover be discovered and condemned leads her to wish wholeheartedly for her own death. The final scene in this act takes place in the Capitol. Silla, with Aufidio and the Chorus, tell the senators he has decided, as a sign of political reconciliation, to marry the daughter of Marius, his former rival. The senators express agreement but Giunia rebels, reveals a dagger and threatens to kill herself. Cecilio enters with sword in hand, willing to defend his beloved, to Silla’s great surprise and indignation, as he had thought him to be a long way from Rome or even dead. The tyrant’s indignation increases as Cinna enters brandishing his own sword, but the patrician then claims to have discovered Cecilio’s criminal intent and to have followed him to prevent the assassination. Silla orders that Cecilio be disarmed and Giunia begs her beloved to put down his sword and asks him to renounce revenge for her sake and put his trust in the gods. Overcome, Cecilio obeys. Before the sweethearts are taken to jail, the act concludes with a brilliant dialectical exchange between Silla’s rage, Cecilio’s impetuosity and the dignified and loving nobility of Giunia.
In a gloomy cell, Cinna explains to Cecilio, who is in chains, about the failure of the plot against Silla, but says he will not renounce their plan and assures his friend that he will save both him and Giunia. Celia arrives and Cinna promises to marry her if she is able to convince her brother Silla to desist from his cruel attitude. Cecilio is surprised to see his beloved enter. She has persuaded Silla to let her say her last goodbyes and is determined to die by his side; the lovers embrace with sadness and love. But when left alone, Giunia describes how she senses the impending death of her beloved Cecilio and passionately yearns to die with him. In a room at the
palace, Silla, accompanied by Cinna, Celia, the senators and guards, presides over the great final scene where the tyrant relinquishes power and shows clemency renouncing Giunia and giving Rome back its freedom. Silla solemnly describes to the Roman people and Senate how the banished Cecilio had entered the Capitol to try to kill him, but, in a surprising turn of events, assumes the authority Rome has conferred upon him to rule that Cecilio should live and marry Giunia. He then gives a list of citizens banished from Rome to whom he returns their freedom. He notes that Cinna does not join in the general happiness and the patrician confesses that he was behind the plot to overthrow him. Silla surprises them again by ordering that Cinna marry his sister Celia and declares that he is satisfied by the remorse shown by his friend. The opera reaches its solemn conclusion with Silla’s abdication as he removes his laurel wreath and returns his
homeland to freedom.