Khan Ghirei is lost in reverie by the “Fountain of Tears”, built in memory of Maria.
Birthday celebrations for Maria, the daughter of a noble Polish lord, are underway at the old castle. The castle is ablaze with lights and music can be heard. Maria and her bridegroom Vaslav appear in the dusky park. They are overjoyed. A Tatar scout slinks along the path, unseen. The castle doors swing wide open and the guests come down into the park to the music of a solemn polonaise. The host and his beautiful daughter lead the dancing.
The polonaise gives way to a mazurka and a cracovienne. Suddenly, the wounded chief of the guard enters, bearing news of a Tatar attack. Prince Adam calls the men to arms. The women hide themselves in the castle. The Poles get ready to beat off the attack.
The castle is aflame. Locked in mortal combat, the defenders of the castle perish. Maria and Vaslav are running through the fire and chaos of the bloody battle, trying to escape. Their flight is hindered, however, by Khan Ghirei. Vaslav attacks him but is stabbed with the Khan’s dagger and falls dead. The Khan approaches the defenceless girl, tears the veil from her face and is struck motionless by her beauty.
Khan Ghirei’s harem in the palace of Bakhchisarai. Ghirei’s favourite wife Zarema, “the star of love”, is amongst the concubines.
Sounds of bellicose music can be heard. The wives and concubines get ready to welcome Khan Ghirei.
The Tatars return from the war, rich in plunder. The captive Maria is carefully carried in. Ghirei enters the harem. He looks preoccupied and thoughtful. Zarema tries to divert him, but in vain. Overwhelmed with his love for Maria, he takes no notice of Zarema. Zarema realises that his love for her has gone.
The concubines try to cheer up their ruler. Zarema hopes to regain his favour, but all is in vain. He pushes her aside and leaves. Zarema collapses.
A luxurious bed-chamber. Here, guarded by an old woman, the beautiful Maria languishes in captivity, a harp the only reminder of her former life, freedom and bygone happiness. Her reverie is interrupted by Ghirei. He implores her to accept his love and his wealth, but Maria is only afraid and repelled by Ghirei, who killed her beloved, her friends and her family. He humbly leaves the chamber.
Late at night, Zarema enters the bed-chamber. She tells Maria of her passionate love for Ghirei, demanding that Maria alienate Ghirei from herself, and pleads to restore his love for her. Maria is unable to understand Zarema’s passionate speech and is frightened by it.
Zarema sees Ghirei’s scull-cap on the floor. Seized with jealousy, Zarema rushes to Maria with a dagger; unafraid, Maria is prepared to die. Ghirei rushes in. He tries to stop Zarema but fails. Zarema kills Maria.
The courtyard of Ghirei’s palace. Ghirei is surrounded by servile nomads, warriors and slaves.
Nothing, neither the rich plunder from a new foray, nor new and beautiful concubines, gladdens or excites the Khan.
Executioners lead Zarema to her death. Ghirei orders them to hurl her down from the top of a high cliff.
Ghirei’s favourite military chief Nurali tries to divert his sovereign from his sombre thoughts, but the warrior-like dances provide no relief. Ghirei sends everyone away.
Ghirei is sitting by the “Fountain of Tears”.
A train of thoughts passes through his mind, reviving the image of the beautiful Maria.