On Easter Sunday morning in a 19th century Sicilian village, Turridu sings of his ardent love for Lola. Turridu, a young villager, had once been engaged to Lola, but returned from military service to find that she had married Alfio, a carter in the town. Heartbroken, Turridu retaliated by seducing the peasant girl, Santuzza, but also still maintains an affair with Lola.
Later that morning, Santuzza, tearful and distressed, approaches the tavern of Turridu’s mother, Lucia. Santuzza demands to know where Turridu has gone, but Mother Lucia is reluctant to divulge his whereabouts. Lucia claims that her son is out of town buying wine, but Santuzza is convinced that Turridu has been seen nearby in the village at night.
Lola’s husband Alfio then arrives, singing in celebration of the virtues of his life as a carter and his faith in his wife’s fidelity. Alfio asks Mother Lucia if she has any vintage wine, and Lucia again maintains that Turridu has gone to get more. Alfio replies doubtfully, claiming he has seen Turridu near his house that morning. Lucia appears puzzled, but is quickly hushed by Santuzza; soon after, church bells ring, breaking up the conversation and calling the villagers to Mass.
Santuzza remains outside in the square with Lucia, and reveals that she knows about Turridu’s affair with Lola. Santuzza expresses that she feels both abandoned by Turridu and condemned by God. Mother Lucia heads into the church and prays for Santuzza in pity. Turridu finally appears, and Santuzza seizes the opportunity to confront him. She demands that he admit his infidelity and his love for Lola, but Turridu denies it all and casts her aside. Having spotted Lola heading into the church, Turridu follows her in and leaves Santuzza alone in the town square.
Alfio now arrives, looking for Lola, and finds a furious Santuzza following her encounter with Turridu. In the heat of her rage, Santuzza reveals to Alfio that Turridu and Lola are engaged in an affair. Alfio is predictably enraged, and swears revenge on Turridu, while Santuzza immediately regrets her disclosure, fearing the violence that might ensue.
The villagers congregate at Mother Lucia’s tavern following Mass. Turridu is delighted to have Lola at his side, and leads the merriment with a drinking song. Alfio arrives and greets the villagers. Turridu offers Alfio wine, but Alfio sternly rejects the gesture. The women in the tavern sense impending trouble, and hurry Lola away from the scene. The two men have a tense exchange, and Turridu bites Alfio’s ear, signaling a challenge to a duel. Alfio and Turridu agree to meet outside the village to settle their dispute in a knife fight.
Now alone with his mother, Turridu implores Lucia to take care of Santuzza if he doesn’t survive the duel. He rushes off, leaving Lucia and Santuzza to anxiously await the outcome. A crowd forms, and after noises of violence and confusion, a woman declares that Turridu has been killed.