The action takes place in Italy in the 16th century, when Pope Clement VIII is sitting on the papal throne.
Count Cenci, a wealthy Roman nobleman, head of a large family, was famous for his disingenuousness and heinous atrocities, which he does not even consider it necessary to hide. He is sure of his impunity, because even the pope, condemning his sins, is ready to forgive their count for generous offerings. In response to the exhortations and reproaches surrounding Cenci, without a trace of embarrassment, declares: “I am sweet with a look of agony and a feeling, / that someone will die there, and I live. / In me there is neither repentance nor fear / That torment others so.”
Even to his own wife and children, Count Cenci does not feel anything but anger, contempt and hatred. Not embarrassed by the presence of the papal cardinal Camillo, he sends curses to his sons, whom he himself expelled from Rome. Somewhat later he arranges a magnificent feast, on which, absolutely happy, he praises God for the reward of his sons. Seated next to her daughter Cenci, the beautiful Beatrice, begins to suspect that the brothers had a misfortune – otherwise why would my father so rejoice. Indeed, Cenci announces to her and her stepmother Lucretia that his two sons are dead: one was crushed by a collapsed church vault, another was mistakenly stabbed by a jealous husband. Beatrice knows that Giacomo’s older brother is ruined by his father and drags out a
Beatrice, who was in love with Orsino from her youth, became a priest, she still hoped that the request of Orsino to the Pope would be accepted, the Pope would remove her from the beloved, they could marry, and then she would escape the power of the murderer-father; but the news comes that the petition of Orsino returned unopened, the pope did not wish to delve into this request. Cardinal Camillo, close to the Pope, makes it clear – the pope, confident that the children offend the old father, supports the count’s side, although he declares that he intends to observe neutrality. Beatrice feels that she can not get out of the spider’s network of her father.
In Act III, Beatrice appears at Lucrezia’s stepmother, who is in love with her, in complete despair, she imagines that she has an open wound in her head: her mind can not comprehend the enormity of what happened. Violence has come to pass, Beatrice is dishonored by her own father. The girl rejects the idea of suicide, because in the eyes of the church this is a great sin, but where is she to seek protection? Lucid Orsino advises to sue, but Beatrice does not believe in the justice of the court, because even the pope does not deem it necessary to interfere with her father’s villainous deeds, and the skies seem to even help Cenci.
Not hoping to find understanding and support anywhere, Beatrice, along with her previously meek and God-fearing stepmother, Lucretia begins to make plans for the murder of a tyrant. As performers, Orsino suggests using two vagabonds, which “is like a worm, that person.” According to Beatrice’s plan, the assassins must attack Cenci on the bridge over the precipice on the way to the castle, where the Earl intends to send his daughter and wife away, so that they can mock them without hindrance. To the conspirators joins crushed by cruelty and treachery of father Giacomo.
All of them are waiting with hope for the news about Cenci’s death, but it turns out that the tyrant once again was lucky: he rode the bridge an hour before the appointed time.
In the mountain castle, before his wife, Cenci gives vent to his low feelings and thoughts. He is not afraid to die without repentance, he is not afraid of God’s judgment, believing that his black soul is “the scourge of God.” He longs to enjoy the humiliation of the proud Beatrice, he dreams of depriving his heirs of everything except a dishonored name.
Hearing that the daughter shows disobedience and is not on the orders of his father, Cenci brings down on her numerous monstrous curses. His soul knows neither love nor repentance.
Clearly realizing that there is simply no other way to avoid new torments and humiliations in her and her relatives, Beatrice finally decides on parricide. Together with her brother and stepmother, she waits for assassins, hoping that Cenchi is already dead, but they come and confess that they did not dare to finish off the sleeping old man. In despair, Beatrice snatches a dagger from them, ready to carry out the execution of the tyrant herself. Being ashamed, the murderers leave and after a short time they announce that Cenci is dead.
But Beatrice, her younger brother Bernardo, Lucretia and Orsino, do not have time to feel relief at this news, as Savall’s legate appears and demands Count Cenci – he has to answer a number of serious charges. The legate is informed that the count is asleep, but the mission of Savella is urgent, he insists, he is led into the bedroom, it is empty, but soon a dead body of Cenci is found in the branches of the tree under the bedroom window.
Angry Savella demands that everyone go with him to Rome to investigate the murder of the count. Conspiracy covers panic, one Beatrice does not lose courage. She angrily accuses the servants of the law and the papal throne of inaction and of indulging the father’s crimes, and when the retribution has come to pass, those who previously asked, but did not receive protection from the oppression of the tyrant, are now readily condemned as criminals.
However, the trial of them is inevitable, they are all sent to Rome. The captured assassin under torture confesses to the deed and confirms the accusations pulled out of him on the rack. Then Beatrice appeals to the court with an ardent speech about the questionable value of the confessions obtained in this way. Her speech so shocking killer that, ashamed of his own cowardice at the sight of the courage of this beautiful girl, he renounces his testimony and dies on the rack. However, brother and stepmother Beatrice lacks courage, and they are also tortured to confess to plotting to kill Cenci. Beatrice reproaches them for weakness, but she does not reproach the main reproaches, She condemns the “justice of the miserable earthly, the cruelty of heaven” for the slander of villainy. At the sight of such firmness of spirit, her family repents of their own weakness, and Beatrice has enough strength to console them.
The Pope, whose younger son Cenci, uninvolved in the murder of his father, asked to pardon his relatives, remains deaf to his pleas. The dignity of the Pope impressed even Cardinal Camillo, who knew him well. The verdict of the pope is unchanged: the conspirators must be executed.
The news of a quick death first causes confusion in Beatrice’s soul: she, so young and beautiful, is sorry to part with life; Moreover, she is frightened by the thought: and suddenly behind the grave-board “there is no Heaven, no God, no earth – but only darkness, and emptiness, and the abyss…” Suddenly and there she is met by a hated father. But then she takes control of herself and suddenly calmly bids farewell to her family. She corrects the hair of Lucretia, asks her to tie her hair with a simple knot. She is ready to face death with courage and dignity.