Robert Dean Smith (Guntram); Marjorie Owens (Freihild); Tom Fox (The Old Duke); Zachary Nelson (Duke Robert); Weí Wu (Freihold)
The opera takes place in Germany in the middle of the thirteenth century. Each act begins with a prelude.
Minstrel-knights Guntram and Friedhold, members of the fraternal order the “Champions of Love,” offer food to a group of hungry peasants they meet in the woods. The people explain that they rebelled against the greed of their evil lord, Duke Robert. Robert suppressed their rebellion so cruelly that they are fleeing his land. A poor woman curses the duke, telling of her murdered husband and dishonored daughters. She says the duke’s wife Freihild tried to atone for her husband’s actions, but that she has now been forbidden to help them further.
The peasants continue their journey, and in his first monologue Guntram praises the enchantment of the spring and thanks God for bringing him to this land of misery so that he may try to awaken the conscience of the duke through the power of his song. He prays to God to help him. Freihild has run away from her husband and father and attempts to drown herself because she was forced to marry the hated Duke Robert. Guntram restrains her and is thrilled to discover she is the woman whom the peasants had praised for her compassion. Freihild’s father, the Old Duke, enters and thanks Guntram for rescuing Freihild and asks him to name his reward for this act.
Duke Robert arrives cursing the fleeing peasants. Guntram tells the Old Duke that the reward he wants is the freedom of the poor. Duke Robert is furious and suspicious of Freihild’s interest in Guntram. All go to the palace to celebrate Freihild’s return.
At the castle, four minstrels celebrate the duke’s victory over the insurgents, while the fool makes sarcastic comments. Guntram wishes to leave, but Freihild’s unhappiness encourages him to sing a song contrasting the joys of peace with the horrors of war (“Friedenserzählung”). Everyone, except Duke Robert, has been moved by Guntram’s impassioned plea for peace. A messenger arrives crying “War, War.” The peasants have risen up again and are marching on the castle. Guntram denounces Robert as the source of all evil and urges the vassals to capture him. Robert tells them to arrest Guntram instead, and when they hesitate, Robert draws his sword and advances on Guntram. Guntram mortally wounds Robert. All are appalled; the Old Duke orders the arrest of the unresisting Guntram and sends him to prison for torture and execution.
Monks can be heard chanting “Kyrie eleison” over the body of Robert. In his dungeon Guntram thinks he sees the murdered duke’s ghost and declares that Robert deserved to die so thousands could be free. Freihild rushes in to declare her passionate love for Guntram. He faints briefly. As she continues with her outpouring of emotion, he interjects repeatedly, only “Freihild.” She begs him to flee with her.
Friedhold returns calling Guntram a “great sinner” for the murder of Robert. He wants Guntram to appear before the tribunal of their order, the “Champions of Love,” to answer for having broken their vow of non-violence. Guntram insists his deed was good but adds that his real crime is in his heart for he acted for love of Freihild. To atone for this sin, he must punish himself by renouncing Freihild and spending the rest of his life in solitude. Guntram says the order cannot punish him—“only my will can atone for the sin of my heart.”
Freihild is distraught, and Guntram, saddened by her pain, urges her to be strong for him and to continue her good works. Now that the duke is dead, the dukedom is hers and she has the power to help her people. She kisses his hand and accepts his charge. She gathers her courage as he departs forever.