SETTING: VENICE, 1457
Doge Francesco Foscari reigned in Venice for the unusually long period of 34 years. These years were marked by almost continual warfare; during which the courage, the firmness, and the wisdom of the illustrious Doge had vastly increased not only the glory of Venice but also her dominion.
It was not without much political opposition that Foscari had obtained the Dogeship; having defeated his rival Loredano, who continued to oppose him ceaselessly, he soon discovered that the throne which he had coveted was far from being a seat of repose. Three out of his four sons were already dead; to Jacopo, the survivor, he looked for the continuation of his name and comfort in his declining age.
Jacopo, however, was no more fortunate than his father. Condemned by his father's detractors of accepting extravagant gifts from foreign governments “ a treasonous crime “ he was sent into exile in Treviso, not far from Venice. Soon thereafter, one of the members of the Council of Ten who had convicted him was heinously murdered. Suspicion soon pointed towards Jacopo who was again brought to trial, found guilty and sent into even further exile in Crete. Suffering immensely from the separation from his homeland and family and willing to risk his life to return home for even a day, he sent a fateful letter to the Duke in Milan. As it was a serious crime to communicate with foreign governments he fully knew that a spy would intercept it and that he would be brought back to Venice to face justice one last time.
The opera begins as Jacopo awaits the sentence for his latest crime against the state.
In the Doge's Palace, the secretive and fearsome Council of Ten enter their conclave to deliberate the latest case against the Doge's son. Loredano, the sworn enemy of the Doge and a member of the Council of Ten, and his friend, the senator Barbarigo, learn that the Doge has preceded them into the chambers, silently and seemingly serene.
Jacopo Foscari has endured gruesome torture during which the Council has ironically been coercing him to deny his crime rather than confess it. As he waits to be summoned before the Council, he salutes his beloved Venice, which he has missed so dearly in exile. An official tells him to hope for clemency, but Jacopo rails against the unjust hatred that he must face.
Jacopo's distraught wife Lucrezia is determined to plead his case before the Doge, who has so far not taken action to save his own son. When word arrives that Jacopo will once again be condemned to exile, Lucrezia gives vent to her fury.
The Council of Ten has reached a verdict. The corrupt senators cynically praise the impartiality of Venetian justice.
The Doge reflects bitterly on the irony of being at once a powerful ruler, and yet a powerless father to help his own son. Lucrezia pleads with her father-in-law to revoke Jacopo's sentence, but the Doge tells her that he cannot under Venetian law. She asks if he would plead, then, as a father for his son; seeing the old man in tears, she begins to hope that he might take action.
Jacopo Foscari is tortured further even as he awaits his sentence. In his delirium, he has a terrifying vision of the ghost of Carmagnola, a famous mercenary leader who fell out of favor with the Doge and was decapitated. He awakens in the arms of Lucrezia, who tell him that his exile will separate them forever. The Doge arrives, no longer forced to hide his sorrow, and the three share an emotional embrace. Jacopo now sees in his father not authoritarian rigor but paternal affection; this will be a comfort to him during his long exile. Loredano enters, and coldly announces that the Council has ordered that Jacopo must leave Venice at once â€“ completely alone, without the comfort of his wife and children to accompany him.
The Council of Ten and members of the Senate reconvene to confirm Jacopo's sentence. The Doge solemnly enters to preside and Jacopo is led into the chambers. He begs his father to show leniency, but the Doge can only advise his son to resign himself to his fate. In a desperate attempt to compel the Doge's compassion for her family, Lucrezia interrupts the proceedings accompanied by their heartbroken children. Jacopo runs to embrace them and they kneel before the Doge, pleading again for mercy. The senators are unwavering: Jacopo must return to Crete alone, without his family. With this future before him, Jacopo senses that death cannot be far away.
In contrast to the sobriety of the proceedings in the Doge's Palace, the Piazza San Marco is filled with the vulgar masses celebrating the joyful mysteries of love and life. Loredano and Barbarigo observe the happy festival crowd, who are indifferent to the destiny of Foscari and the Doge. Jacopo is escorted out of the palace. As he sadly bids farewell to Lucrezia and his children, he urges his beloved not to give their enemies the satisfaction of seeing her tears. Loredano arrives to hasten the departure as Jacopo is exiled forever.
The Doge, a seeming bystander to the tragedy unfolding before him, bemoans his tragic fate: three of his sons have died early deaths and a fourth must endure bitter exile. Barbarigo rushes in with evidence that exonerates Jacopo from the murder for which he was earlier accused. The Doge thanks the heavens, but his joy is short-lived: a grief-stricken Lucrezia announces that Jacopo died at the very moment his boat pulled away from shore. Enraged by the cruel circumstances, she invokes heaven's fury against her husband's persecutors.
Dispirited and disheartened by the long series of tragic events which have beset him, the Doge has effectively withdrawn from public life.
The members of the Council, headed by Loredano, and the Senate appear before the Doge to ask for his resignation. The Doge refuses, reminding them that twice before in his long illustrious tenure he has attempted to abdicate in order to place his duty to his family before that of his country. Twice he was denied the chance to step down, and was even forced to swear an oath that he would remain in office until his death. As he cries out, â€˜Give me back my son, and I will obey!' the Council rapaciously divests him of his Ducal ring, crown and mantle. Increasingly delusional as the events unfold, the Doge begins to hear the bells of San Marco tolling in honor of his successor. Unable to bear the agony any longer, his heart suddenly breaks and he dies a lonely and dejected man.