Wealthy Buoso Donati has just died, and his relatives are vying to express the most grief. The weeping and wailing soon give way to alarm, however, as poor relation Betto starts to spread the news that he has heard a rumour in town that Donati left his considerable wealth to a monastery. Everyone turns to old Simone, Donati’s cousin, who thinks they might have some hope for inheritance if the will is still in that room.
A frantic search begins. At last young Rinuccio, Zita’s nephew, triumphantly announces that he has found the will. He then bargains with his aunt Zita, Donati’s cousin, to allow him to marry Lauretta, daughter of Gianni Schicchi. Zita says he may marry anybody he wishes, as long as the will leaves them all well off. Rinuccio sends little Gherardino to find Gianni Schicchi and Lauretta.
Zita solemnly opens the will, while Simone tenderly lights candles for the deceased. Together they silently read the will, and find to their dismay that the rumour is true: Donati has left everything to the monks of Santa Reparata.
Suddenly it occurs to the relatives that there may be a way to get around the will. Rinuccio suggests that Gianni Schicchi can help them. Zita will not hear of it, but Gherardino, who has returned, announces that Schicchi is on his way. At this point, Simone and Zita strongly object to a marriage between a Donati and the daughter of an upstart like Schicchi. But Rinuccio points out that clever men like Schicchi (and Arnolfo and Giotto and the Medici), “new people” from the outskirts of the city, are and will continue to be the making of Florence (“Firenze è come un albero fiorito”).
Schicchi arrives, Lauretta in tow. He cynically comments under his breath on how downcast the Donatis look as Lauretta and Rinuccio whisper together lovingly. Schicchi, in best undertaker tone, expresses his sorrow for the family’s great loss. Gherardo retorts that the loss is great indeed. Schicchi points out that they will have the comfort of the inheritance, prompting Zita to bitterly inform him that they have been disinherited. She asks him to take Lauretta and go, as she will not have her nephew marry a girl without a dowry. Lauretta and Rinuccio protest, but neither Schicchi nor Zita will bend until Lauretta pleads with her father and threatens to throw herself in the Arno if she cannot marry the man she loves (“O mio babbino caro”).
The doting Schicchi cannot resist her. He studies the will and a solution dawns on him. He asks the relatives if anyone else knows that Donati is dead. When they tell him no one else knows, he orders Marco and Gherardo to remove Donati’s body to another room and orders the women to remake the bed. As they comply, uncertain of Schicchi’s intentions, there is a knock at the door. Maestro Spinelloccio, the doctor, has arrived. The relatives hastily inform him that Donati is better. They stop him from coming in, saying that Donati is resting. Suddenly a strange voice issues from the bed, asking the doctor to come back later. “I’ve risen from the dead,” says the imposter, and the doctor goes away impressed with his own doctoring skills.
Schicchi asks the relatives to summon the notary and to tell him that Donati is dying and wants to make his will. When the notary arrives, the room will be dark, and in the bed he will see the figure of “Donati,” complete with cap and chin strap. With this clever plan under way, the relatives get down to the business of dividing up Donati’s possessions. The cash will be split equally. Simone wants the farms at Fucecchio; Zita, those at Figline; Betto, those at Prato. Gherardo and his wife, Nella, want the lands at Empoli; Marco and his wife, La Ciesca, those at Quintole. Simone suggests that they leave the matter of Donati’s most-valued possessions—the house, the mule, and the mills at Signa—to Schicchi’s discretion.
As Schicchi is dressed for the role he is to play, he warns the relatives that the law in Florence is that whoever forges a will gets a hand cut off and is exiled (“Addio Firenze”). A knock announces the arrival of the notary and the witnesses. “Donati” greets them gratefully and explains that he would have written out the will himself, but he suffers from palsy. He then revokes all prior wills. The notary asks about funeral expenses; “Donati” wants them to spend no more than two florins. He revises his legacy to Santa Reparata, giving them only five lire and explaining that if he left too much to charity, people would say that it was dirty money.
“Donati” now keeps his promises as to the cash in hand and the various farms and lands. However, when it comes to the mule, the house, and the mills, he leaves them to his dear friend Gianni Schicchi. The horrified relatives, bearing in mind the penalty for forgery of a will, must stifle their outrage.
When the notary and witnesses have departed, the relatives turn on Schicchi in a rage and begin to loot the place before he chases them out. Meanwhile, Rinuccio and Lauretta enter and tenderly recall how they shared their first kiss. Schicchi returns, carrying some of the loot he managed to grab back from the Donatis. Moved at the sight of the happy lovers, he turns to the audience and asks, “Tell me, ladies and gentlemen, if Donati’s money could end up better than this? For this bit of fun, they stuck me in hell…and so be it. But with the permission of the great father Dante, if this evening you’ve been amused, grant me extenuating circumstances.”
-Linda Cantoni, courtesy Encyclopedia Brittanica