A band of gypsies has pitched its tents for the night on the bank of a river. Beneath a pale moon, they light campfires, prepare a meal and sing of the freedom of their nomadic existence. An old gypsy tells a story. Long ago, he loved Mariula who deserted him for another man, leaving behind Zemfira, their daughter. Zemfira is now grown up, has her own child, and lives with Aleko, a Russian who has abandoned civilisation for the gypsy life. Hearing this story, Aleko is outraged that Zemfira's father took no revenge on Mariula. But Zemfira disagrees. For her, as for her mother, love is free, and she herself has already tired of Aleko's possessiveness and now loves a younger gypsy, one of her own people. After dances for the women and the men, the gypsies settle down to sleep. Zemfira appears with her young lover, whom she kisses passionately before disappearing into her own tent to look after her child. Aleko enters and Zemfira taunts him, singing about her wild lover. Alone, Aleko broods on the catastrophe of his relationship with Zemfira and the failure of his attempt to flee the ordinary world. As dawn comes, he surprises Zemfira and her lover together. In a torment of jealousy he kills them both. All the gypsies gather, disturbed by the noise. Led by Zemfira's father, they spare Aleko's life but cast him out from them for ever.