L'Arlesiana had its origins in a short story from Alphonse Daudet's collection of Lettres de mon moulin. The author himself later transformed it into a play, L'Arlesienne, for which Bizet wrote the well-known incidental music. From the play Leopoldo Marenco derived the libretto for Cilea's opera.
L'Innocente is called so because he is slightly retarded. Local superstition has it that an idiot child brings good luck to the household. Nevertheless, l'Innocente is neglected by everyone except Baldassarre.
Rosa Mamai is worried rather about her older son Federico, who has fallen madly in love with a woman from Arles, ``l'Arlesiana'' who never appears in the opera and who is never referred to by any other name. Rosa's brother Marco has been alerted to gather information about this unknown woman whom Federico wants to marry.
Rosa's goddaughter Vivetta arrives at the farm. She has always loved Federico and is disillusioned to learn of his obsession for l'Arlesiana. During the conversation between the two women, all of a sudden Rosa gives a start to see l'Innocente up on the edge of the window of the hayloft. Baldassarre reassures her from above as he pulls the child back, and Rosa shudders, ``Se mai cadesse alcun da quell'altezza!'' -- ``If anyone should ever fall from that height!''
Federico enters exultant, followed shortly afterwards by his uncle bringing positive, though not very reliable, news about the woman from Arles. On the basis of Marco's favourable opinion, Rosa has no choice but to consent to the marriage plans. While everyone else is inside drinking a toast, Baldassarre out in the farmyard is approached by Metifio, a stable hand, who asks to speak to Rosa. She is called out and Metifio reveals to her that he has been the lover of l'Arlesiana: the girl's parents were aware of the liaison, but they abruptly kicked him out when the prospect of a more advantageous marriage with Federico arose. To prove his statements, he shows Rosa and Baldassarre two letters, which he agrees to leave with them until the next day. As soon as he has left, Federico comes out and his mother has him read the letters. The first act ends with Federico in despair over the treachery of the woman he loves.
Vivetta comes on the scene and awkwardly attempts to carry out Rosa's advice, candidly admitting that she loves Federico, but Federico rejects her. The girl's sobs draw Rosa to the site. Rather than go on watching her son eat his heart out, Rosa offers her consent to his marriage with l'Arlesiana. Federico is moved by his mother's sacrifice and refuses, swearing that he will only give his name to a woman worthy of it. With that, he calls back Vivetta and asks her to help him recover from his morbid passion.
With things quieted down again, Rosa remains alone and sings her aria ``Esser madre è un inferno'', a prayer in which she laments the trials of motherhood. L'Innocente awakes and enters to reassure his mother that she can go along to bed and he will keep watch over his brother. He announces that ``scemi in casa non ce n'è più'' -- there are no more idiots in the house. In fact, all of a sudden the child seems to have woken up mentally. Rosa kisses him and caresses him as she never did before, but as she sends him back to bed she is filled with apprehension that this prodigious change might bring misfortune. There follows an orchestral lullaby as Rosa herself finally retires with the approach of dawn.
Federico stumbles in, half-delirious, repeating the last lines of the shepherd's story about the goat fighting with the wolf all night and falling dead with the first light of dawn. He is obsessed with visions of l'Arlesiana being carried off on Metifio's horse. Rosa comes running out, as Federico heads for the hayloft. He believes he hears the galloping and the cries of l'Arlesiana. As his mother tries desperately to stop him, he climbs up to the hayloft and, without further hesitation, hurls himself from the window.
synopsis © Bonnie Bonis, 1998