Setting Florence, 1299
The rich old Buoso Donati has died. His family express their grief to one another. However, in reality they are all thinking of the deceased’s will. There are rumours that he has left everything to a monastery in San Reparata. Surely this can’t be true? The relatives turn for advice to the seventy-year-old Simone, the cousin of the dead man, who was once mayor of Fuccecio. Simone says that if the will is in the house something may yet be done. Everyone starts to search for the document that will reveal the dead man’s wishes. It is found by Rinuccio, the young nephew of Zita, Buoso’s cousin. Unlike the deceased’s other relatives, he thinks little of money. His thoughts are taken up with Lauretta, Gianni Schicchi’s daughter. They love one another. But the elderly aunt is indifferent to the match. Zita promises her blessing on one condition – if the testament fills their pockets and there is no longer any need to think of the potential income from a dowry. Full of hope at the deliverance the will might lend, Rinuccio sends the young Gherardino for Schicchi and his daughter. The reading of Buoso Donati’s last will confirms the worst – all is to go to the monks. The relatives react with rage. Rinuccio suggests getting advice from Gianni Schicchi. Buoso’s relatives want nothing to do with him, considering him a vulgar peasant who is below them. Rinuccio defends the father of his beloved, praising the ingenuity of those who have, like him, come from outside Florence to make it a greater place. Gianni Schicchi appears with his daughter Lauretta. He is insulted almost from the outset, and the marriage refused on the grounds that Lauretta has no dowry to offer. Initially refusing to help, his daughter’s plea convinces him to intervene. Sending his daughter onto the balcony, Schicchi orders the body be taken into another room, the bed to be made and that all traces of mourning be removed. Suddenly there is a knock at the door – Dr Spinelloccio has come to see his patient. Hidden, Schicchi imitates Buoso Donati’s voice, telling the doctor he is much better and asking him to return later. The doctor leaves singing the praises of Bolognese medicine.
Gianni Schicchi reveals his plan. All are convinced that he can copy the dead man’s voice to perfection. And if he can imitate his appearance too then he can dictate a new will to the notary. The relatives are delighted and begin to discuss the division of the property. Outside the window a funeral bell sounds and excitement turns to terror – surely Buoso’s death has not been discovered? But it is a false alarm. One after the other, Donati’s relatives, unknown to each other, try to bribe Gianni Schicchi to give them the most valuable share of the inheritance. Schicchi promises to do as each asks, but reminds them that forgery is punishable by law and the penalty the cutting off of a hand. The relatives are worried. But even fear of a frightful punishment cannot stop them dreaming of riches. Having changed his clothes, Schicchi gets into Buoso’s death bed.
Accompanied by two witnesses – Guccio and Pinellino – Ser Amantio di Nicolao the local notary appears. The “dying man” informs him that his paralysed arm has left him unable to write, so his will must be dictated. He asks for “his family” to be present when the document is prepared. Then, after initially sharing the wealth as agreed, the false Buoso wills his most valuable property to his “great friend Gianni Schicchi”. The relatives are beside themselves in fury but are powerless. If they expose this crafty villain they will put their own necks in the noose. When the notary departs, all the cousins and their spouses fall upon Schicchi. But as the new master he orders them all out. Rinuccio and Lauretta are able to love in peace and sing of their future together. The old Zita cannot prevent their marriage. Gianni Schicchi turns to the audience and asks them to forgive him his little deceit because of the mitigating circumstances. Despite being banished to hell, he argues that all could not have turned out better. He says that the great Dante also forgives him and expresses his gratitude for providing the subject of the work.