In 17th century Paris the goldsmith Cardillac kills to retrieve any object he has made and sold. His daughter is divided in her heart between her father and her lover, an Officer who buys a gold chain from Cardillac, and is stabbed by him. Wounded, the Officer lays blame on the Gold Dealer, a witness of the attack, but Cardillac reveals his own guilt and is killed by the crowd. In the revised version Cardillac's daughter is replaced by the Opera Singer and her lover by Cardillac's Journeyman, who is suspected by the Police Officer as the murderer. A gold diadem is sought from Cardillac for the Opera Singer and in the third act there is a performance of Lully's Phaëton in which she wears it, giving it back to Cardillac after the opera. The Police Officer makes off with the diadem and Cardillac wounds him in an attempt to recover it. The Journeyman is accused, but Cardillac, as in the earlier version, reveals himself as the murderer, to be killed by the crowd.
Scored for what is virtually a chamber orchestra, Cardillac studies the relationship of the artist and society, the subject of the later Mathis der Maler (Matthias the Painter). Hindemith uses a number of traditional forms, culminating in a last act passacaglia . Some have deplored the revised version, which they see as weakening the drama.