Florence, in the year 1299. Around Buoso Donati´s death-bed his relatives have assembled, shedding false tears for the sake of the deceased. A rumour has made the round claiming that Buoso, the rich uncle, bequeathed all his property to the nearby monastery. Everyone is frantically looking for the will. At last, Rinuccio finds it. Quickly he sends for Gianni Schicchi and his daughter Lauretta, whom he wants to marry against the wishes of his family. Buoso Donati has indeed disinherited his relatives. They are outraged and shocked. Only after lengthy discussions, they grudgingly agree to ask Schicchi, well-known as a „stranger“, but also as a shrewd, calculating businessman, for advice. Since Buoso Donati´s death has not been made public yet, Schicchi slips into the role (and clothes) of the deceased. He wants to rewrite his last will and testament before the notary in order to do „justice“ to his relatives. Before doing so, he reminds the assembled family of the draconian punishment that is in store for everyone in case the faked transaction were to blow up: loss of the right hand and eternal banishment from the town. By disguising his voice, Schicchi has already been able to outwit Magister Spinelloccio, Buoso´s physician. Now he dictates his last will to the notary, seeing that the main part of the property falls to „his dear friend Gianni Schicchi“, whereas Buoso´s relatives end up almost empty-handed. In the end, the new landlord Schicchi expels them from the family estate. Rinuccio and Lauretta can now marry.
A monastery, in the late 17th century. The nuns are chanting their prayers. The interior of the monastery looks cold and oppressive. The nuns confess their secret wishes to each other, only Sister Angelica professes not to have any wishes. Everyone knows that she is lying. Expelled by her noble family seven years ago, she has been atoning for an unknown offence in the monastery since then. A high-ranking visitor arrives to see Angelica. It is her aunt, who wants to divide up the family inheritance. Relentlessly, she accuses Angelica of having dishonoured the family by giving birth to an illegitimate child. When Angelica hears about the death of her child two years ago, she suffers a complete breakdown. Having lost all faith in mankind, she lapses into desperation and doubts about her religious education. Only by means of suicide, she thinks, can she bring her earthly misery to an end and reunite herself with her deceased child.
Paris. Michele´s freighter is lying at anchor on the banks of the Seine. The crew members Luigi, Tinca and Talpa are carrying heavy loads of cargo on shore. Giorgetta, Michele´s wife, offers each of them a glass of wine as a reward. Her husband’s caresses are a nuisance to her. Tinca and Luigi venture a dance with the ship-owners wife. Evening is approaching. Frugola comes on board to pick up her husband Talpa. Proudly she presents the booty she has collected on her latest strolls through the quarter. Tinca leaves his comrades to drown his sorrows over „this slave-labour“ in alcohol. Frugola dreams of a cottage in the countryside, while Giorgetta and Luigi indulge in memories of life in suburban Paris. – Giorgetta is in love with Luigi. For this night, too, they arrange a secret meeting: the sign agreed upon is, as always, a lighted match. Michele has a suspicion that his wife is having an affair with one of the crew. In vain he evokes recollections of the past, of those days, when their child was still alive and they were happy together. When Michele wrapped his cloak around all three of them, it made them feel protected and secure…. While Giorgetta pretends to sleep, he remains on deck, waiting for his rival and lighting his pipe with a match. At this signal, Luigi comes on board. Michele strangles Luigi and covers the body with his cloak. Giorgetta decides to return to her husband and comes on deck to ask his forgiveness. Michele pulls away the cloak revealing the dead body to her.