Turiddu, a handsome young peasant, is in love with Lola, a fair village maiden, who returns his affection. He enlists as a soldier, and on his return from the war discovers that his betrothed has proved faithless and married Alfio, a carrier. To drown his grief, he seeks another love, and his choice falls on Santuzza, who becomes passionately attached to him. But the fickle Lola very soon tires of Alfio, and, chagrined at the happiness of her former lover with his new sweetheart, she is mad with jealousy and endeavours to win him back to her side. This she has already succeeded in doing when the play begins.
The orchestral introduction is interrupted by a Siciliana, sung by Turiddu behind the scenes, in which he extols Lolas beauty and protests his undying devotion. The curtain rises on the Square of a Sicilian village. At the back, on the right, there is a church; on the left, an inn and the cottage of old Lucia, the mother of Turiddu. It is Easter Day. The church-bells are ringing, and a crowd of peasants, men, women, and children, come on leisurely, cross the stage, and pass into the church. A chorus in praise of Spring and the reawakening of nature is heard from behind. Then the women appear, still singing; they are joined by the men, and all slowly wend their way home, the strains dying in the distance.
When the stage is once more cleared, Santuzza enters. Going towards the cottage she asks Lucia, who comes out at the same moment, what has become of Turiddu. His mother replies that he has gone for wine to Francofonte. Santuzza, however, declares he was seen in the village last night, and hints that she suspects his whereabouts. Lucia invites Santuzza to go into the church, but she refuses. "I dare not enter," she says -- "I who am accussed. My heart is broken."
Now the cracking of a whip and the sound of bells are heard from without; and Alfio, accompanied by a number of peasants, appears, singing a merry song of the road, to which the men, soon joined by the women, supply a chorus. He is perfectly happy, entirely free from care; driving his team, and believing in his wife, tender and true, who keeps watch at home. When the crowd disperses in various directions, and he is left alone with Lucia and Santuzza, Lucia tells him he is right to be always so gay. In answer to his request for some old wine of hers, which he likes, she says it is finished, but that Turiddu has gone for more. Alfio knows better. ""Twas only this morn I saw him beside my cottage lurking." When Lucia expresses surprise, Santuzza quickly tells her to be silent. Just then the organ sounds from the church, and Alfio, bidding them go to mass without him, leaves them abruptly. The Easter music is now heard within; soon men and women enter, kneel in front of the church, and also join in singing. Finally Santuzza and Lucia add their voices to the hymn of thanksgiving, at the close of which, all, save these two, proceed into the sacred edifice.
Lucia, who remembers Santuzzas warning to be silent, would fain know its meaning, and thus calls forth the beautiful Romance, in which is revealed the whole story of love and jealousy, the certainty that Lola has regained her power over Turiddu, and the despair of Santuzza. Lucia passes into the church promising to pray for the broken-hearted girl, just as Turiddu appears on the scene. When he demands of his old love why she has not gone to mass, she replies that she cannot, and entreats him to listen to her. To her question, "Where hast thou come from?" he insists "from Francofonte"; and on her asserting that he has been seen stealing from Lolas cottage that morning and that Alfio knows of it, he charges her with spying on him and wishing to kill him. He persists in denying his love for Lola, and has nothing but scorn for the poor girl whose passionate pleading has no effect upon his heart. He ends by telling her plainly that he loves her no more. At that moment Lola is heard singing behind the scenes:
Oh, gentle flower of love!
Close to my beating heart I hold thee, dreaming,
Heaven has no flower above so sweetly gleaming!
Oh, gentle flower of love!
Heaven has a thousand stars of gold above me,
I ask but one in all the world to love me!
Oh, gentle flower of love!
She enters, and seeing the pair, breaks off, asking Turiddu, "Where is Alfio?" Then, pointing to the church, she inquires of her rival, "Why go you not yonder?" Santuzza makes answer, "They only pray whose hearts are free from sin and stainless"; to which Lola retorts, "Then, thanks be to Heaven, Heaven will watch over me"; and ironically blessing Turiddu and Santuzza, she, too, joins the worshippers. Turiddu, enraged, rushes on Santuzza, and then casts her from him. She pleads once more to be taken back to his heart, but in vain. At last he dashes her to the ground, and follows Lola into the church. Now Santuzzas love seems to be turned to hate. She curses the traitor, and when Alfio appears, she seizes the chance of revenge, telling him that his wife is false. When, however, she realises that Alfio means to fight and kill Turiddu, she bitterly regrets having betrayed him; for, in spite of his faithlessness, she still loves him. "Ah, wretched I!" she cries, while Alfio demands "Revenge, revenge!" And thus ends the first part of the work. After its storm and stress depicting the conflict of human passions, the world-famed "Intermezzo" comes like a breath of fresh air to cool the atmosphere.
The second part of the stirring drama begins with a short orchestral prelude, during which Lucia enters and crosses the stage to her cottage. A number of peasants follow, singing on their homeward way after the Easter celebrations. At the close of their "merry lay," they are joined by Lola and Turiddu from the church. Lola is also going home, but Turiddu begs her to stay. At the same time, turning to the crowd, he invites them to drink with him to-day. They accept and come to the table for the wine, while Turiddu sings a rousing drinking song, in which presently the whole company lustily join. They have just uttered the last words, "Drink on, drink on," when Alfio enters and salutes them. Turiddu at once fills a cup and hands it to him. "Thank you," says Alfio, "the wine you give, I cannot drink it. There is poison within it"; to which Turiddu replies, "Tis as you please," throwing away the wine. Lola is terror-struck, and now feeling that there is trouble brewing she exclaims in anguish, "Ah, God! what woe is nigh!" At this point some of the women in the crowd consult together, then go to Lola, and saying, "Come, Mistress Lola, this is no place for you," they lead her away.
When she is gone. Turiddu declares himself, "At your service, Alfio." The two men embrace, and Turiddu bites Alfios right ear, as a challenge. "Master Turiddu," replies Alfio, "I will accept your challenge; we understand each other!" After a long pause during which Turiddu is seized with terrible remorse, he addresses Alfio in accents of sorrow and repentance: "I know that I have wronged thee; blame not thy Lola. By heaven above thee, I swear the fault was mine alone! But if you kill me, who will care for Santa; lonely and deserted, who will protect her?" In a moment, changing his tone again, he shouts with violence, "Come, then, lets try whose knife is longest," and Alfio goes off to await him in the garden.
Turiddu, now calling his mother from her cottage, begs her to bless him, and prays that, if he return not, she will be a mother to his Santa. Lucia, in distress, wishes him to explain, but with assumed indifference, he says he has only been dreaming; she need have no fear. He kisses her farewell, and beseeching her to pray for him, rushes out. By this time his mother realises that he is in great trouble, and running to the back of the stage she calls after him despairingly. Presently Santuzza appears, and crying, "Dearest mother," embraces the distracted woman, while the stage fills with people with fear and agitation on their faces. Confused tongues are heard without, and then a womans voice in the distance shouting, "Turiddu is killed!" The awful truth is repeated, and Santuzza and Lucia fall senseless to the ground.