Michele looks at the sun setting on Paris, while the stevedores finish unloading the hold of his barge, moored on the Seine. Giorgetta suggests standing the stevedores a drink, but she is not so kind to her husband: the reason is easily understood from the exchange of meaningful looks between herself and Luigi. They all drink, everyone seems to have some sad thoughts to drown in wine. An organ grinder approaches the wharf: Tinca awkwardly danceswith Giorgetta,but Luigi soon takes his place. The arrival of Michele makes them separate abruptly and trying to appear natural, Giorgetta asks her husband whether he intends to keep the stevedores on board when they next depart: Luigi will be with them as well.A ballad singer appears on the road: a group of midinettes gather around him to listen to the song of Mimi. On the barge Giorgetta and Michele continue their difficult conversation but all confidence seems to be lost between them; and it is Michele’s silence which particularly upsets Giorgetta. Frugola the rag seller comes with her sack of rags; while waiting for Talpa, she talks about her job and her cat. The stevedores emerge from the hold: Tinca goes to the tavern where he will drown his sorrows in wine. Luigi sympathizes with him: if life is like that, it is better not to think too much about it. Frugola dreams of having a little house in the country where she could relax in the sunshine with Talpa and the cat. Giorgetta wishes are somewhat different: she would like to live in Paris, and leave the wandering life she lives on Michele’s barge; she misses Belleville, where she was born: Luigi enthusiastically commiserates her nostalgia. Giorgetta and Luigi, left alone, exchange a few stealthy words of love, but are soon interrupted by the arrival of Michele. They arrange to meet that night: when Giorgetta lights a match it will be the signal for Luigi. Then they part with the bitter knowledge of how difficult it will be for them to be happy. Tension between Michele and Giorgetta rises again and the reason for the incomprehension which divides them comes out: the death of their child a year ago. Michele is overwhelmed with sorrow for his lost happiness and tries, without success, to bring Giorgetta close to him again, but she eludes his attempt. Michele is left alone on the deck, he watches her leave and murmurs his contempt.
The sun is setting one spring evening: in the convent the nuns are reciting the Hail Mary, the zealous nun imposes penances to two lay sisters for not having been present at vespers, to sister Lucilla, who laughed while in the choir, to sister Osmina, for keeping two roses hidden up her sleeves. It is recreation time: while sister Angelica attends to her plants, sister Genovieffa notices a sun beam touching the fountain, turning the water gold. Only three times a year this beautiful spectacle can be seen. Sister Genovieffa suggests laying some flowers on the grave of the recently deceased sister Bianca Rosa. They talk about their wishes: sister Genovieffa confesses that she would like to stroke a lamb, as she once did in the outside world when she was a young shepherdess. Another admits sometimes she is rather greedy; sister Angelica says she has no desires but everyone knows that she does have one: to have news of her family, of whom she has heard nothing since she was brought to the convent, perhaps as a punishment, seven years earlier. The sister nurse comes to announce that sister Chiara has been stung by wasps: sister Angelica will take care of her, with her usual prescription to cure all ills made out of flowers and plants. Two nuns come back from alms collecting, their donkey laden good things given in charity. They tell of having seen an elegant carriage just out the convent gates: somebody must have come to visit one of the nuns. Sister Angelica is unexpectedly moved with interest, and asks for details of the carriage’s appearance and coat of arms. The tension is at his height when the Abbess enters and announces that the visitor really has come for sister Angelica: it is her aunt, the Princess. Seeing her aunt, the young nun is deeply moved but the Princess shows cold detachment. She has come only to obtain Angelica’s assent to the division of the family patrimony, which she is now administrating after the death of Angelica’s parents. The heritage must be divided because Anna Viola, Angelica’s younger sister, is to get married. Angelica is moved to tears, hearing of her sister, but the Princess does not relent: Angelica must expiate her sins after she had disgraced her family name. But Angelica does manage to control her emotion and asks after her son: the baby they had taken away from her seven years before; finally her aunt is forced to say that the baby had died two years earlier. Angelica falls to the ground, almost fainting. The Princess is moved by pity for her but soon controls herself and hands the parchment to Angelica who signs it. She then leaves, without another word. Alone and in the dark, Angelica cries over her son’s fate: to die away from his mother, and without even having known her warmth and love. She too wishes to die, now, so as to be united again with her little boy. The other nuns gather around sister Angelica, thanking for had the grace to give her the news of her family, which she had so desired. Almost exalted, sister Angelica rises and joins the others in praise. That night she chooses from among her flowers those with which to prepare a deadly potion which, after having said farewell to the convent, she drinks. But then, realizing she has committed the sin of suicide, she begs the Virgin Mary’s forgiveness. She asks her for a sign of mercy: among a heavenly choir, the Virgin Mary appears to Angelica, leading towards her a baby. This is the sign sister Angelica has asked for and she dies, in peace at last.
A group of relatives pretends to cry at the death-bed of Buoso Donati, a rich man.What really interests them is his inheritance; a rumor spreads amongst them that Buoso has left everything to a monastery. The will must be found: if it were still in that room, it could be remedied. The young Rinuccio hopes to inherit something so that he may marry Lauretta, the daughter of Gianni Schicchi, one of the “gente nova” and disliked by the Donati. It is in fact Rinuccio who finds the will after much laborious searching by all. Everybody’s hopes revive and the relatives promise Rinuccio that he may marry Lauretta on the condition that the will is favourable. Rinuccio sends for Gianni Schicchi and the girl. The will is opened: but they are bitterly disappointed. Buoso has left everything to the friars who will enjoy the heritage and laugh at the relatives of the deceased who have come away empty-handed. What can be done? No one has any idea. Only Rinuccio has a suggestion to make: namely to ask for Gianni Schicchi’s advise. At the sound of his very name they are all incensed with anger. No one wants to even hear about him. Rinuccio replies that he is a shrewd man, resourceful like every self-made man from the country. In that moment Gianni Schicchi and Lauretta arrive on the scene. Schicchi, amazed at seeing the Donati family in tears, thinks that instead of dying Buoso has recovered or otherwise that they are pretending very well: it seems quite incredible to him that they could really be grieving over the death of a rich relative. Before long the truth comes out, and now that the family is ruined, “la Vecchia” forbids the marriage because she does not want to throw Rinuccio away on a girl with no dowry. Schicchi, mortally offended, makes as if to leave, but Rinuccio stops him. Lauretta falls on her knees in front of him, and begs him at least to take pity on her and to try to help the Donati, even though they may not deserve it. Schicchi is touched and reads the will, but neither he is able to find a solution to save the Donati’s heritage. There is general discomfort: but Gianni Schicchi thinks again and all of a sudden idea comes to him. Of course! Nobody knows that Buoso is dead yet: his body must be carried away and his bed remade. The other obey though perplexed. At that moment there is a knock on the door: it is Maestro Spinelloccio, the doctor, who has come to examine Buoso: the relatives tell him that Buoso feels better, that he is resting and it would be better not to disturb him. Schicchi himself, by imitating Buoso’s voice, convinces the doctor to go away. Spinelloccio goes away, highly pleased with the results of his medical skill. Schicchi can now keep on plotting his treachery: he sends for a notary, saying that Buoso wants to make his will; however it will be Gianni Schicchi in the bed, well disguised, and he will make a very different will. Everyone is happy: they carry on to the division of the property, deciding who is going to have the land in Empoli and who will have that in Prato. It is more difficult to come to an agreement about the house, the mule, and the mills at Signa, which are the largest part of the heritage. As an agreement cannot be reached, everyone tries to win Gianni Schicchi’s favour; but the clever Schicchi pretends to give his support to all of them. The scene for the fraud is prepared and Gianni Schicchi, disguised as the sick man, goes to bed; but before starting his act he warns everybody of the punishment for forging a will: the cutting off of a hand. The notary and his witnesses arrive; he starts to draw up the will: everything in the former will is revoked, little is to be spent on the funeral, the friars are to have a small offering and the cash is to be divided equally amongst the relatives. The wisdom and the sense of justice shown by the false Buoso is much praised: the relatives are satisfied with Schicchi, who allots the smaller items as previously agreed.The crucial moment has come to decide who will have the house, the mule and the mills at Signa. To the bewilderment and great anger of all, one by one the false Buoso leaves everything to Gianni Schicchi. To dampen any sign of protest on the part of the relatives, all Schicchi has to do is to remind them of the punishment they would receive if they disclose the swindle. When the notary and his witnesses have gone, needless to say not without a handsome reward, Gianni Schicchi has to face his victims’ anger: but since the house now belongs to him, he turns everybody out. The relatives go away, carrying with them as much as they can. The greed of the Donati is so punished, and Lauretta obtains the dowry which will permit her tomarry Rinuccio. Faced with their happiness, Gianni Schicchi draws the moral of the story, with permission from Dante, who, for his whim, has sent him to Hell.