The libretto of the opera was adapted by the composer from Vasily Zhukovsky's Russian verse translation of the like-named tragedy by Heinrich Heine, with some additional verses by Viktor Krylov, who had already written the libretti for Cui's operas Prisoner of the Caucasus and The Mandarin's Son. (The same play has been used for other operas, most notably Pietro Mascagni's Guglielmo Ratcliff, which premiered over a quarter century later.)
The action takes place in Scotland, during the 17th century (Heine's original was set in Scotland of his own time).
Act I, Tableau 1. In MacGregor's castle, Mary, who in her heart really loves William, is being wed to Douglas. The guests celebrate the wedding. MacGregor blesses the couple. Margaret intones a portentous song with the line "Why is your sword so red with blood, Edward"? This disturbs Douglas, and Mary tries to calm him. He tells about being attacked on the road by highwaymen. Mary faints, but soon recovers. Douglas continues by telling of a mysterious man who rescued him. MacGregor sends Mary and the guests away to the banquet hall. He reveals to Douglas the details of Mary's previous two suitors.
Act I, Tableau 2. Amidst a congratulatory chorus, Ratcliff's agent Lesley delivers a challenge to Douglas to a duel.
Act II, Tableau 1. At a tavern, the patrons are having fun making fun of the drunken Robin. Lesley sings a merry song. Ratcliff enters, and the people fall asleep. He tells Lesley of the two spectres that reach out to embrace each other, and of his childhood with Mary, and why he killed her two previous suitors. He begins to hallucinate, and the sleeping tavern clientele wake up. Ratcliff and Lesley leave, and the rest go back to sleep.
Act II, Tableau 2. Outside, by the Black Stone, Ratliff awaits Douglas. When the latter enters, he recognizes Ratcliff as the man who saved him from the robbers. Nevertheless, the duel is engaged. Douglas seriously wounds Ratcliff and leaves. Ratcliff, regaining consciousness, begins to hear witches laughing at him and runs off amidst thunder, lightning, and wind.
Act III. In Mary's bedroom, she tells Margaret how sweet William Ratcliff used to be, and how she is having dreams that he is a spectre reaching out to her. She asks what happened to her mother, and Margaret relates the events. Despite his injury, Ratcliff, whom Margaret mistakes as Edward, enters. Mary tends to his wounds. When Margaret intones her song again, Ratcliff goes mad and kills Mary. MacGregor, responding to calls for help, enters, and is killed by Ratcliff, who goes off to the alcove and commits suicide. The two phantoms appear and embrace. Douglas and guests enter and react to the tragedy.
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Nazarov, A.F. Цезарь Антонович Кюи [Cezar' Antonovič Kjui]. Moskva: Muzyka, 1989.
Stasov, V.V. "Цезарь Антонович Кюи: биографический очерк" ["César Antonovich Cui: a biographical sketch."] Артист [Artist] [Moscow], no. 34 (1894).
Taruskin, Richard. Opera and Drama in Russia As Preached and Practiced in the 1860s. New ed. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 1993.