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The Tyrolean mountains.
The Marquise de Berkenfield and her steward Hortensius have been surprised by the advance of French troops on the very day when they were preparing to flee to Austria. The Marquise finds herself in among a crowd of villagers. The men are armed, while the women pray to the Virgin (Sainte Madone). Possibly in answer to their prayers, the French retreat from the mountain, to the relief of the Marquise, who was stricken with fear (Pour une femme de mon nom). She goes off to rest.
Left alone, Hortensius finds himself facing Sulpice, sergeant in the 21st Regiment. Although petrified, the steward obtains a pass for himself and his mistress.
Sulpice is joined by Marie, the daughter the regiment adopted after finding her on a battlefield 12 years before (Au bruit de la guerre, j’ai reçu le jour). The whole regiment acts as her father (Mon régiment, j’en suis fière vraiment), and recently, Marie has become their mess-girl (Nommée à l’unanimité). But for some time Marie has been seeing a Tyrolean partisan, Tonio, and Sulpice is by no means in favour of this new attachment of his daughter’s. Marie is in love, but disheartened, and she and Tonio have decided never to see one another again. However, the whole regiment enters,bringing the Tyrolean, who has risked his life to come and join Marie (C’est un traître, qu’il périsse). Marie steps in to save Tonio, just as he saved her life when she was about to fall off a cliff while picking flowers (Quoi! la mort à celui qui me sauva la vie!). Tonio toasts his new friends, and Marie sings the regimental song (Il est là, morbleu, le beau Vingt-et-unième).
The regiment goes out, taking Tonio with them, but he quickly escapes and comes back to Marie (Quoi! vous m’aimez?). Sulpice surprises them, and Marie has to tell Tonio that she can only marry a soldier from the 21st. Tonio is not going to give up.
Sulpice agrees to the Marquise de Berkenfield’s request for an escort to take her to her castle. But Sulpice recognizes the name Berkenfield from the letter found near the young Marie on the battlefield. It emerges that the Marquise is the mess-girl’s aunt. Shocked by Marie’s manners, the Marquise decides to take her niece off to her castle to give her a proper education. By a stroke of bad luck, Tonio has only just signed up with the French (Ah! mes amis, quel jour de fête!). The regiment agrees to let him marry Marie, but she has to leave both the man she loves and her regiment (Il faut partir).
The Berkenfield’s Castle.
The Marquise de Berkenfield is at home in her castle, where she has just completed arrangements for an advantageous marriage between Marie and Duke Scipion de Crakentorp. Sulpice is also at the castle. He is supposed to be helping the Marquise with her plans for Marie’s re-education. Music is part of the curriculum, and today Marie has to sing a song by an Italian composer (Le jour naissait dans le bocage). But Sulpice goads Marie into misbehaving (Rataplan, c’est le refrain du régiment). The military and salon songs get mixed up: the Marquise loses her temper, and Marie is miserable. (Sous les bijoux et la dentelle, je cacheun chagrin sans espoir). Suddenly the whole regiment, together with Tonio, bursts into the castle (C’est elle, notre fille!). The soldiers carry off Hortensius, while Tonio and Sulpice remain behind with Marie (Tous les trois réunis). Tonio asks the Marquise for Marie’s hand in marriage (Pour me rapprocher de Marie). When she refuses, Tonio decides to reveal what he has discovered from his uncle – that the Marquise is not Marie’s aunt – and he considers abducting the young woman. Alone with Sulpice, the Marquise confesses the truth. She is Marie’s mother, and the girl’s father was a soldier, Captain Robert. Afraid of revealing a liaison that was beneath her, she abandoned her child.
The guests arrive to see the marriage contract signed. Marie refuses to leave her room. The Marquise is at her wits’ end, and the formidable Duchess de Crakentorp is already growing impatient. Then it occurs to Sulpice to tell Marie the secret of her birth, after which she will no longer be able to refuse. Marie does indeed leave her room, and is ready to sign when, suddenly, all the soldiers, led by Tonio, come crashing in (Au secours de notre fille, nous accourons tous ici). The guests are aghast at the news that the young woman was a mess-girl (Une fille de régiment), but change their opinion when they hear how Marie feels (Au fait, elle est charmante!).
The Marquise has no desire to sacrifice her daughter, and agrees to her marriage to Tonio. Everyone sings a final chorus of Salut à la France.