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The Pontevedrian Embassy in Paris at the turn of the century
A diplomatic reception is in progress, hosted by Baron Zeta, the ambassador, to celebrate the birthday of the ruler of Pontevedro, but other matters are occupying the minds of most of the guests.
Two young Parisian men about town, Raoul de St Brioche and Vicomte Cascada, are carrying on flirtations with the wives of embassy officials. More serious is the affair between Valencienne, the young wife of the ambassador, and Camille de Rosillon - on his part at least, since she is determined to be a "respectable wife." To achieve this aim, she intends to marry him off safely to someone else. Forbidden to speak the words, Camille writes "I love you" on her fan, which she leaves lying around to keep turning up later to cause endless misunderstandings.
Baron Zeta trusts his wife blindly. His great worry is Madame Anna Glawari, once a poor country girl, now a rich widow, worth 50 million. St Brioche and Cascada prick up their ears when they hear this, finding this a goal more worthy of their attentions than social flirtations. This is exactly what the baron has been worrying about. If Madame Glawari marries a foreigner and takes her 50 millions from the Pontevedrian bank, the country will be ruined, so he must find a suitable Pontevedrian to marrry her and keep the fortune in the country. He has chosen the First Secretary, Count Danilo Danilovich, who prefers the nightspots of Paris to diplomatic work. Zeta has sent Njegus, the embassy secretary, in search of Danilo and he, arriving back rather drunk after a long search round the nightspots, reports that the count is on his way back from Maxim's.
Madame Glawari arrives and is surrounded by eager young men, but although, she says, "only a simple country girl," new to Paris, she sees through them and teases them about their mercenary motives. Unaware that her husband wants Anna to marry a Pontevedrian, Valencienne sees her as a splendid match for Camille and offers him to her as a dancing partner. Diplomatically, Anna chooses to dance with the "dear old baron."
The room is empty when Danilo staggers in, ready to answer the call of the father land, and lies down on a divan. Anna finds him asleep and an awkward interview follows, as they had once been in love, but Danilo's family had frowned on his marrying a poor farmer's daughter and whisked him away. She had then married the court banker, who had died a few days afterwards, leaving her a rich widow. Although unwilling to admit it, they are still in love, but when Anna taunts Danilo with being interested in her now she is rich, he swears he will never say the words "I love you."
They part with a declaration of war - unfortunately for the baron, who tries to persuade Danilo that it is his patriotic duty to marry Anna. Danilo at least agrees to see to it that she doesn't marry any of the foreigners and out manoeuvres them so successfully in the ensuing ladies choice that Anna ends up choosing him as her partner. They dance, but without suspending hostilities.
The garden of Anna's house in Paris.
Anna has invited all the Pontevedrian colony and hangers-on to a national party at her mansion the following day and she opens the entertainment herself by singing the celebrated Vilia song.
Danilo arrives later, a reluctant guest, but still intent on keeping foreign suitors at bay. He succeeds in blackmailing St Brioche and Cascada into withdrawing - by threatening to reveal their affairs with embassy wives - but is unsure of the position of Camille. He has several encounters with Anna, in which they continue their verbal sparring.
Valencienne and Camille retire to a discreet pavilion for a last farewell. Baron Zeta discovers that someone is having a rendezvous there and is determined to find out who it is, but before he can burst in, Anna, warned by Njegus, manages to take Valencienne's place. So it is Anna who is discovered by the baron and Danilo, whom he has called as a witness, in a compromising situation with Camille, so she says that she is going to marry him - to the consternation of all, including the prospective bridegroom. Danilo announces that he is going back to Maxim's.
Maxim's, later that night
Anna transfers the whole of her party to Maxim's and arranges to be left alone with Danilo. He forbids her - "on behalf of the fatherland" - to marry Camille, and she tells him she never intended to and that it was not she who had the compromising rendezvous. Now there is no obstacle between them - except the 50 million and Danilo's pride.
When the rest of the part comes back, Zeta suddenly realises that the fan bearing the words "I love you" belongs to his wife and proclaims his divorce on the spot and, to save the fatherland, proposes to Anna. She explains that, according to her husband's will, she will lose her fortune on re-marriage. At that Danilo feels free to say the magic words "I love you."
Valencienne shows her husband her answer to Camille, also written on the fan, "I am a highly respectable wife," and he begs her forgiveness.
Anna then finishes her explanation of the conditions of the will: she will lose all her money because it will become the property of her husband. So both fatherland and true love are satisfied.
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The village of Capanari in the region of Lucca
The villagers at the inn listen to a virtuoso violin solo being played inside a nearby pavilion. Speculation that it is the devil playing is not dispelled by the impresario Bartucci, who, to publicise Paganini's concert in Lucca, gives an exaggerated account of the supernatural origin of his genius.
Pimpinelli, chamberlain of Princess Anna Elisa, announces her imminent arrival at the inn, to dine after a hunting party, but when she arrives he is doubtful about the propriety of staying in a village tavern. Anna Elisa replies that although Napoleon's sister may relish pomp and ceremony, she is also ready to thumb her nose at etiquette when she wants to be free. The princess is angry because her husband has not yet appeared. Although they have agreed to go their own ways - he leaves matters of government to her - she draws the line at his pursuit of opera singers; he is now paying court to Bella Giretti, prima donna of the Lucca opera house. Anna Elisa hears Paganini playing and demands to know who he is.
Meanwhile, the villagers have arrived with weapons and call on him to come out. He emerges and thanks the people for their ovation, throwing them money to drink his health, changing their anger to enthusiasm. He toasts Italy, art and women. He and Anna Elisa feel a mutual attraction, but she does not reveal her identity, even when Bartucci runs in with the news that the princess has forbidden the concert in Lucca. Anna Elisa advises Paganini to seek an audience with the princess, but he stamps off in a rage. She admits to the fascination of his flashing eyes - despite his uncouthness. Bella Giretti arrives, having escaped from the attentions of the prince. She laughs at Pimpinelli's professions of love, as he admits having laid his heart at the feet of every woman in Lucca.
Paganini apologises to Anna Elisa for his bad temper, and tries to kiss her, to be interrupted by the peasants, who have come to pay their respects to their princess. Her husband returns from the hunt and confirms that it was he who ordered the concert cancelled. Anna Elisa tries to overrule him, but Paganini is not interested; he only plays where he is welcome and will go to Florence instead. But Anna Elisa stops him from leaving and he promises to stay and play just for her. She blackmails her husband into revoking the cancellation.
The hall of the prince's palace
Six months have passed and Paganini has remained in Lucca as director of the opera house. Paganini loses not only his money, but his Stradivarius to Pimpinelli in a card game. He is unconcerned: if he has lost his money, there is always a girl to flirt with. Pimpinelli is ready to return the violin in return for Paganini's advice on how to deal with women - the answer, delivered in the famous Girls Were Made to Love and Kiss, is just kiss them.
Anna Elisa is worried that Paganini loves her less than before; she has noticed him looking at other women and he failed to see her the previous day. The reason, he explains, was that he was writing a love song, and she is charmed.
Pimpinelli makes advances to Bella, who explains that the kind of man she likes is one who will do anything, however crazy, for a woman. Bella, however, is interested in Paganini, who arranges a private rehearsal with her - much to the dismay of Bartucci, who warns that dallying with the prince's wife is one thing, but his mistress quite another.
Count Hédouville conveys to Anna Elisa the wish of her brother Napoleon that she let Paganini go, as her interest in him is giving rise to gossip - if not, he will have him arrested. But she refuses to give in. When Bella and Paganini have their rendezvous, she reproaches him that although he professes to love her, he is more interested in another woman, to the extent of writing a love song for her. She succeeds in making him write the dedication of the song to her. Anna Elisa comes upon them, sends Paganini away and confronts Bella, who triumphantly produces the song. Anna Elisa tells Hédouville that she agrees to dismiss Paganini and even permits his arrest - during that night's concert.
Bella warns Paganini that he is in danger, but he is unimpressed, so she begs the princess not to carry out her plan, but Paganini's inability to produce the song he wrote for her confirms her in her decision. The concert opens with a song by Bella accompanied by a ballet, followed by Paganini, who refuses to heed Bella's warning that he is about to be arrested. He plays with such fire as to suggest visions to his audience and Anna Elisa is so moved that she prevents the arrest.
A smugglers' tavern on the borders of the principality of Lucca
Paganini, having fled from the court, arrives to ask for assistance to cross the frontier. Bartucci appears soon after, with the news that the princess is furious at Paganini's flight. Pimpinelli and Bella arrive, wanting lodging for the night. The smugglers, having robbed Bella's luggage, sell Pimpinelli her jewels, which he does not recognise.
Urged by Bartucci to resume his world career as a concert musician, Paganini is convinced that the violin is his only true, faithful love. Bella reproaches Paganini for running away without her, and begs him to take her, but Bartucci manages to keep him to the path of duty. Therefore, he decides that she will marry Pimpinelli; but when Paganini congratulates Pimpinelli, she says it was only a joke. Pimpinelli, however, decides that he really does want to marry her and she consents.
Anna Elisa arrives, disguised as a street singer. She tells Paganini that she will set him free for the other woman. But he tells her that he is going alone and must remain alone. As the operetta concludes, Paganini agrees that no one woman should possess him because his gift belongs to all.
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A village in Calabria
The clown Tonio delivers a prologue promising the audience that what they will see is no mere play-acting, but real life.
A crowd gathers to await the arrival of the strolling players and Canio invites them to a performance at 11 o'clock that night. As he and Beppe prepare to join the villagers at the inn, one of them warns him jokingly against leaving his wife Nedda behind with Tonio. Canio's angry reply that such goings-on are only for the play and it would be best not to play such a trick on him in real life chills Nedda. She wishes to be free of him, free like the birds flying overhead.
Tonio, a hunchback, draws near, attracted by her song, but when he declares his love, she repulses him, at first mockingly and then angrily, finally striking him with a whip when he tries to embrace her. He slinks off, vowing vengeance. But he watches as she greets her lover, Silvio, one of the villagers. She agrees to leave Canio and stay with him, and they agree to meet later that night.
Tonio has brought Canio, who overhears the assignation. Nedda delays him while Silvio escapes without being recognised. Tonio suggests that Canio bide his time, as the lover is sure to come to the performance and betray himself. Broken-hearted, Canio dresses and makes up for the performance, reminding himself bitterly that he is not a man, only a clown.
Later that night
The villagers gather and the play begins. Columbina's jealous husband Pagliaccio is away, and after rejecting the advances of Taddeo (Tonio), she entertains her lover Harlequin (Beppe).
Pagliaccio returns and begins to question Columbina. Columbina's parting words to Harlequin as he runs off are the same as Nedda used to Silvio, and Canio slips from the pretended jealousy of Pagliaccio to his own real situation. As he demands the name of her lover with increasing fury, Nedda tries to keep within the frame of the play.
Forced to confront the reality of the situation, she refuses to name her lover and is stabbed by Canio. Silvio rushes from the audience, too late to save her, and is also killed by Canio, who announces to the stunned audience: "The play is over."
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Scene 1. Outside Covent Garden
As people leaving the opera look for taxis, Freddy Eynsford Hill accidentally knocks over Eliza's basket of flowers. Her lamentations are taken down by a bystander, at first suspected of being a policeman, but soon revealed to be Henry Higgins, an expert on phonetics, who astounds everyone by his ability to identify their life stories from their speech, including Colonel Pickering, an expert on Indian dialects, who has come to London to meet Higgins.
Higgins complains that most Englishmen are incapable of speaking their own language properly (Why Can't the English) - Eliza's accent will keep her in the gutter; but in six months he could teach her to speak so well that she would pass muster at an embassy ball. He invites Pickering to stay with him, throwing Eliza a pocketful of money, arousing the envy of her friends (Wouldn't it be Loverley).
Scene 2. Tenement section, Tottenham Court Road
Doolittle learns of Eliza's good fortune but fails to get any money out of her, despite his view that it is the duty of children to support their parents (With a little bit of Luck).
Scene 3. Higgins' study
Higgins is demonstrating his methods to Pickering, when Mrs Pearce, his housekeeper, announces a young woman with a dreadful accent. His initial interest is dispelled when he finds it is Eliza, whose speech he already has a record of, but she, having overheard his remarks about improving her accent, insists she wants lessons. Intrigued, he accepts Pickering's proposal of a bet that he can pass her off as a duchess at the end of six months. Although she is suspicious of his dictatorial attitude, Eliza is mollified by Pickering's more courteous attitude and decides to stay; she is taken off by Mrs Pearce to be bathed. In answer to Pickering's queries as to his character where women are concerned, Higgins assures him that he has no place for them in his life (I'm an ordinary man).
Scene 4. The tenement section, Tottenham Court Road
Doolittle learns that Eliza has apparently "moved in with a swell," and resolves to take advantage of the situtation.
Scene 5. Higgins' study
Doolittle arrives to claim his daughter, but it is immediately apparent to Higgins that he is only after money. Doolittle admits this freely. He settles for £5. On the way out he bumps into Eliza, washed and dressed in clean clothes, and at first does not recognise her. Eliza starts her lessons, but does not take kindly to Higgins' autocratic methods (Just you Wait). A servants' chorus comments as the lessons continue, culminating in Eliza's mastery of a difficult vowel sound and the correct placement of the letter "h" (The Rain in Spain). The delighted Higgins whirls her into a dance and decides the time has come to test her in public. She is exhilarated (I could have danced all Night).
Scene 6. Outside Ascot
Higgins and Pickering take Eliza to Mrs Higgins' box at Ascot, explaining her background and their wish to test her new accent in polite society.
Scene 7. Ascot
Eliza startles the company with her "small talk" - slum anecdotes in an impeccable accent, and, given a horse to back by Freddy (who is greatly taken by her), calls on it to move its "bloomin' arse."
Scene 8. Outside Higgins' house
The infatuated Freddy keeps watch (On the Street where you Live), despite Mrs Pearce's message that Eliza wishes to see no one.
Scene 9. Higgins' study
Pickering is nervous but Higgins is quietly confident as they prepare to take Eliza to a ball. When she enters Pickering is full of admiration, and Higgins concedes that she doesn't look bad.
The promenade ouside the ballroom at the embassy Eliza has passed the first hurdle, being accepted by her hostess, but Zoltan Karpathy, claiming to have been taught by Higgins and now to be indispensable to the royalty of Europe for his linguistic skills, is curious about her, and evading Higgins, dances off with her.
Scene 1. Higgins' study
It is 3 a.m. Pickering congratulates Higgins on his successful experiment, while Higgins gloats at Karpathy's claim to have unmasked Eliza as a fraud and his declaration that she is a Hungarian princess, (You did it). Eliza sits in stony silence until Higgins asks: "What the devil have I done with my slippers?" She throws them at him. She is distresssed because neither he nor Pickering has acknowledged her part in the triumph. She decides to leave.
Scene 2. Outside Higgins' house
Freddy, still soliquizing in the street, is delighted when Eliza appears, but she demands action rather than more words from him (Show me).
Scene 3. Covent Garden flower market
Eliza visits her old haunts, unrecognised in her new finery and accent. Her father is about to be married, having become a victim of middle class respectability as the result of being left money by an American philanthropist, who had been told by Higgins, as a joke, that the most original moralist in England was a dustman called Alfred Doolittle (Get me to the Church on Time).
Scene 4. The upstairs hall, Higgins' house
Higgins and Pickering institute a search for Eliza, the former claiming to find her departure completely illogical, not the sort of thing a man would have done (Hymn to him).
Scene 5. The garden of Mrs Higgins' house
Mrs Higgins sympathises with Eliza. Higgins arrives and tells her that if she comes back he will treat her just as he always has. She says she will marry Freddy and earn her living by teaching the science of speech he has taught her, having realised that she does not need him (Without you).
Scene 6. Outside Higgins' house
Although trying to pretend otherwise, Higgins regrets Eliza's absence (I've grown accustomed to her Face).
Scene 7. Higgins' study
Higgins is playing over his early recordings of Eliza's speech when she returns. Unable to express his joy openly, he says: "Eliza? Where the devil are my slippers?" She smiles.
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