The main characters are the painter Paul Cézanne and the author Émile Zola, who grew up together in Aix en Provence and were close friends there and in Paris until they became bitterly estranged over a novel Zola wrote about a failed painter whom Cézanne felt was based on himself.
The opera is set on September 30, 1902, in Cézanne's last studio near Aix. The central event is a dream Cézanne has after his gardener Vallier has informed him of Zola's sudden death under mysterious circumstances. In the dream the two men are finally reconciled, and Cézanne starts to paint Zola's portrait as he once tried to do, unsuccessfully, in Paris. As he paints, their verbal exchanges expose fundamental differences in the values by which they live: Zola's intense involvement in social and political causes versus Cézanne's singleminded obsession with perfecting his art. Eventually, the reconciliation breaks down as Zola refuses to pose any longer and leaves abruptly for Paris to resume his crusade for justice and equality.
On waking, a devastated Cézanne realizes that Zola is indeed dead, and no reconciliation is possible. But in the end, he finds solace in returning to his art; and on the same easel where he had dreamed of painting Zola's portrait, he begins one of the portraits of the gardener Vallier which are among the great works of his final years.
Performers include tenor Kurt Alakulppi as Cézanne, baritone Jim Trainor as Zola, bass-baritone Peter Ludwig as Vallier, mezzo-soprano Juli Borst as Cézanne's cleaning lady Madame Brémond, and pianist Earl Buys. Stage direction is by Jamibeth Margolis, music direction by the composer, and costumes and makeup by Janell Berté.