Act I The Pontevedrin Embasssy, Paris
Although the country is bust, Baron Zeta, the Pontevedrin Ambassador in Paris, is throwing a party. He awaits the arrival of the fabulously wealthy Hanna Glawari, who has recently been widowed. To avoid her fortune leaving the impoverished country, he plots with Nejgus, the embassy clerk, how she can be prevented from marrying a foreigner.
Meanwhile, Zeta remains oblivious of his young wife Valencienne’s flirting with Camille de Rosillon, who writes ‘I love you’ on one side of her fan. She suggests he marries Hanna instead, but then feels very conflicted about it.
At the party, Hanna is immediately surrounded by eager Parisian suitors. Zeta sends for Danilo, an embassy diplomat, to marry Hanna and keep her money in the country. However, it is an unlikely match, for they used to be engaged until Danilo’s uncle blocked the match, and he left her. In the ballroom, a Ladies’ Choice dance is announced, and the men clamour to be Hanna’s chosen partner. She elects to dance with Danilo. Although he still has feelings for Hanna, he cannot now be seen to like her just because she is rich.
Act II Hanna Glawari’s house, the next evening
Hanna hosts a party that celebrates the historic traditions of Pontevedro, which involve food, dancing, and telling the story of Vilja, about a wood spirit and unrequited love.
Zeta is troubled by rumours that Hanna intends to marry the Frenchman, Camille; however, the Baron is reassured by news that Camille is known to be in love with a married woman. Hanna accuses Danilo of avoiding her. Danilo and the men remark on the difficulties of handling women, but Danilo is falling in love again.
Camille continues to try and seduce Valencienne and begs a token from her. She gives him her fan, on which, on the other side from Camille’s love-message, she writes ‘I am a respectable wife’. Yet he prevails and takes her somewhere private.
Njegus has observed what has happened so when Zeta approaches, he explains that Camille is there with a married woman. Eager to discover the woman’s identity, Zeta can’t resist having a look. He is distraught to see his wife, but in the ensuing confusion Njegus manages to substitute Hanna for Valencienne. Danilo is jealous and angrily leaves for Maxim’s. Hanna realises that his anger proves he still loves her.
Act III Chez Maxim’s Night Club
All the party go to the Club, where, to provoke Danilo, Hanna dances with the grisettes from the cabaret. Danilo tackles Hanna about Camille and she explains that she was helping her friend Valencienne. But only when Hanna’s money is not an issue can Danilo finally tell Hanna he loves her. Zeta’s marital difficulties are settled, and everyone agrees that the men have a lot of making up to do.