Composer: Giacomo Puccini
Setting: Michele’s barge on the Seine in Paris
Giorgetta is busy with her chores, while her husband, Michele, stands on deck. He asks her to kiss him, which she does, but without affection. She offers wine to Luigi, one of the stevedores, and they are joined by two other deckhands, Tinca and Talpa. They begin a dance, only to be interrupted by Michele’s return. With a song seller peddling his songs in the background (“Primavera, primavera”), Giorgetta asks Michele why he seems so troubled, but he does not answer.
Talpa’s wife, Frugola, arrives to take him home and displays the wares she has collected on her daily rounds (“Se tu sapessi”). Tinca plans to drown his troubles in drink; Luigi agrees that is the only way to cope with their bleak existence (“Hai ben ragione”). Frugola dreams of a little house in the country (“Ho sognato una casetta”) and Giorgetta wishes she could leave the barge (“E ben altro mio sogno!”). She and Luigi consider the beauty of the city and its quiet suburbs.
After Frugola and Talpa leave, Giorgetta and Luigi express their love for each other (“O Luigi! Luigi!”). Suddenly, Michele appears from the cabin, and Luigi, finding it unbearable to share his beloved Giorgetta with another, asks to be put off the barge when they reach Rouen. Michele convinces him not to leave his job, assuring him there’s no work in Rouen, and returns to the hold. Giorgetta and Luigi arrange to meet later that evening. She will leave the gangplank in place and light a match when Michele has gone to sleep.
Luigi goes off and Michele again comes on deck. Sensing Giorgetta’s restlessness, he tries to evoke her past love for him by recalling happier days before the death of their child. Failing to regain her affection, Michele expresses his suspicions that Giorgetta is in love with another man, but he cannot figure out who it is (“Nulla! Silenzio!”). He settles down on the deck and lights his pipe. Seeing the light, Luigi rushes on board thinking it is Giorgetta’s signal. Michele grabs him, forces him to admit his love for Giorgetta, and strangles him, then conceals the body in his cloak. Giorgetta reappears on deck to apologize to Michele, who throws open his cloak to reveal Luigi’s dead body.