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Armenia, c. 257-9 AD
Armenia has been conquered by the Romans, who have outlawed Christianity, the growing new faith, and condemned all Christians to death. Paolina, who had loved the Roman general Severo, married the Armenian nobleman Poliuto under pressure from her father Felice, governor of Armenia, who had told her that Severo had been killed in battle.
Act I: The Baptism
During the night, worshippers secretly gather to be baptised into the forbidden new faith, Christianity. Poliuto confides in his friend Nearco, leader of Armenia’s Christians, his worries about being baptised and about his wife Paolina’s fidelity. Nearco advises him to remain calm and turn his thoughts toward God. Poliuto enters the hidden sanctuary for the sacrament of baptism and Paolina soon arrives outside. Suspecting that Poliuto has converted to Christianity, she confronts Nearco, who warns her not to disclose Poliuto’s secret, since her father Felice has decreed death for all Christians. Paolina feels moved by the prayers emanating from the sanctuary. After the baptism ceremony, Poliuto finds Paolina waiting. She warns Poliuto of the danger he faces by converting, but he tells her that he has no fear. As sounds of celebration are heard, Nearco tells them that their enemy, the Roman general Severo, has returned from Rome. Paolina feels both joy and despair at learning that her former lover still lives, for she knows that they can never be reunited. The Christians declare that they will defy death for their faith.
A cheering crowd welcomes Severo, who assures the people that he will destroy the sacrilegious Christian upstarts in their midst. After secretly expressing his desire to reunite with his beloved, he encounters Felice and asks after Paolina. Felice informs Severo that Paolina is now Poliuto’s wife. Severo vents his rage, while Callistene, the High Priest of Jupiter, vows revenge and Felice and Poliuto voice their worries.
Act II: The Neophyte
At Felice’s home, the High Priest Callistene has arranged a meeting between Paolina and Severo. Paolina is surprised to find Severo in her father’s house. He reproaches her for betraying him. Paolina feels her passion for Severo rekindled but resolves to remain faithful to Poliuto and demands that Severo leave. Meanwhile, Callistene has brought Poliuto to witness his wife’s clandestine meeting with Severo. Poliuto is now convinced that Paolina is unfaithful and vows to avenge this stain on his honour. He is interrupted by the news that Nearco has been arrested by the Romans. Poliuto rushes off to save Nearco.
Before the crowd assembled at the Temple of Jupiter, Callistene invokes the vengeance of the gods upon the Christians. When the captive Nearco is escorted in, Callistene demands to know the name of the person baptised the night before. Nearco refuses to betray the convert, but when Severo threatens him with torture, Poliuto confesses that he is the man they seek. Paolina begs her father, Severo and Callistene to spare Poliuto. The enraged Poliuto momentarily breaks free from his captors, denounces Jupiter as a false god, and rejects Paolina. Poliuto and Nearco are led away.
Act III: Martyrdom
In a sacred wood near the Temple of Jupiter, the people can be heard discussing the impending executions. Callistene arrives and informs his priests that other Christians have decided to follow Poliuto’s example and seek martyrdom by confessing their faith, and that Paolina continues to plead for Poliuto. Callistene exhorts the priests to stir the people to vengeance.
In his prison cell, Poliuto dreams of Paolina transfigured by a strange light. He awakes to find Paolina there, and the two are reconciled. Paolina tells Poliuto that he need not die if he will renounce his Christian faith, but he refuses, believing that eternal salvation awaits him after death. Inspired by his courage and faith, Paolina begs Poliuto to baptise her so that she might die with him. At first he is unwilling, but when he realises that her conversion is authentic, he agrees. They look forward to eternal life together.
Severo and his men arrive to take Poliuto to the arena for his execution. Paolina announces her conversion to Christianity and asks to die with her husband. Severo urges her to reconsider, but she refuses. Callistene and his priests demand the couple’s execution. Poliuto and Paolina go off to face death together.