It is Easter Sunday in a Sicilian village. In the early morning hours the women and the young girls are already decorating the church for the holiday. From a distance the voice of a man can be heard singing a love song: “Oh Lola, your skin is white as milk and red as cherries are your lips…”.
Everybody knows Lola. In the past she had been engaged to the son of Mamma Lucia, Turiddu. But then Turiddu was summoned to military service. On his return, he found Lola had become the wife of the wealthy coachman Alfio. His pride deeply hurt, Turiddu then began a passionate love affair with the beautiful Santuzza, an affair of course not sanctioned by the Church. It also hurt Lola’s feelings, who, often bored by her husband’s long absences, had made up her mind to win back Turiddu.
So everybody knows Lola, but we can only guess that the singer of the serenade is Turiddu. Having had another sleepless night without her lover, Santuzza, too, has become suspicious. She feels that Turiddu has been deceiving her during the last few weeks and therefore wants to speak to his mother. At first, the old lady refuses to listen to Santuzza. Only after Alfio’s alarming remark that he had seen Turiddu with his own eyes near his home during the early morning hours and after having realized that Turiddu’s life is at stake, is she willing to hear the truth from Santuzza. Mamma Lucia understands all too well what will transpire, very aware of the inevitability of things ending badly.
But Santuzza has still not given up hope. Once more she confronts Turiddu, and still he maintains his claim of being faithful to her. During their dispute, however, Lola passes by on her way to mass. Without saying so explicitly she makes it clear to Turiddu that he has to decide between her and Santuzza, who can hardly hide her jealousy during the encounter with her rival. Lola leaves the two alone and enters the church.
Turiddu, very much provoked by her, takes the episode for an opportunity to break once and for all with Santuzza, who reacts immediately. She hurls a curse at the man she loves so much. Still under the shock of the separation, she informs Alfio of the relationship between his wife and Turiddu. Sicilian honour knows but one conclusion in such a case: vendetta.
When, after the Easter Mass, Turiddu exploits the presence of the entire village to drink to Lola’s well-being, Alfio steps in and challenges Turiddu to a duel. The latter accepts and, in sudden anguish and regained sobriety, asks his mother to bless him and to promise to treat Santuzza like a daughter from now on. The worried mother fails to understand what is going on when her son suddenly hastens away from her. The frightening cry of a woman rises over the village: “They have killed Turiddu!” Thus, Lucia lost her son and Santuzza her lover.
A prologue explains the intentions and style of the subsequent play, that is to say, use is made of old forms of theatre, while at the same time achieving a new kind of honesty in the depiction of reality. The play starts. A small theatrical road company is welcomed eagerly by a crowd that wants to be amused. Canio, the leader and, as Pagliacco, the protagonist of the company, invites the audience to see the comedy they will be staging the same evening. They will perform the play about the unhappy Pagliacco, who is deceived by his wife Colombina.
His audience does not fail to notice that Canio, in real life as well, keeps a close eye on his young wife Nedda, the Colombina of the evening. Teased about it by the crowd, Canio requests them not to confuse him with Pagliacco. To prove his affection for his wife, he gives Nedda an ardent kiss in public.
The strangely tense atmosphere dissolves in laughter. It seems like a happy dream when the young couples withdraw one by one, being watched benevolently by the mothers and elders of the village. Suddenly, Nedda finds herself finally alone. She enjoys the sunny afternoon. The hunchback Tonio, however, generally playing the fool Taddeo in their comedies, has lingered behind and begins to molest her with his advances. As he is becoming more and more importunate, she grabs a whip to defend herself. At last Tonio gives up and goes away, swearing to take revenge.
Silvio, a young stranger with whom Nedda has begun a passionate relationship, makes use of the moment by trying to persuade Nedda to escape with him during the night. She hesitates, wants to break up with him, but is nevertheless entirely fascinated by him. Tonio has secretly observed the two. When Nedda and Silvio tenderly embrace before parting, they are confronted by Canio and Tonio. Silvio, however, manages to escape just in time.
Half mad, Canio rushes towards his wife to make her reveal the unknown lover’s name. With great effort, Beppe, the harlequin – actor and factotum of the troupe – is able to keep him from pressing her further on the matter. Nervous tension prevailing, the company of actors prepare for the performance. The spectators are already assembling, among them, unrecognized, Silvio.
The comedy having commenced, Canio is less and less able to keep control of himself. No longer does he act as Pagliacco, he is Canio now; Colombina has become Nedda for him. The terrified audience must see with their own eyes how Canio stabs his wife on stage and, immediately afterwards, Silvio as well, who had climbed the stage in order to come to Nedda’s aid. Tonio, the hunchback, whose plotting and scheming had initiated the cruel play, dismisses the audience. “La commedia è finita”.