Beside the Fountain of Tears, Giray Khan sadly recalls the proud Polish princess Maria and his favorite wife, the fiery Georgian Zarema. Figures from the past appear and vanish, bringing the shapes of the beautiful women to life.
An old garden by the Polish duke's castle. A ball is in full swing, but all eyes are on the duke's beautiful daughter, Maria, who is enjoying the festive evening together with her beloved fiance, Vatslav. An overall feeling of jubilation prevails, the guests flaunt their shiny armor and celebrate the power of Poland, yet the air is filled with forebodings of war.
While the guests dance, the celebration is suddenly interrupted by a Tartar attack. The Poles rush into a deadly battle with the attackers. But a moment later, the castle is in flames, and its defenders are killed. Amazingly enough, only Maria and Vatslav survive. Their path is blocked by the leader of the invaders, Giray Khan, ruler of the Crimean Khanate. While trying to protect Maria, Vatslav dies. The Khan tears Maria's shawl, and is struck dumb by her incredible beauty. But the Tatars revel in a horrible orgy, celebrating their victory and the rich spoils of war.
Giray Khan's harem in Bakhchisaray. The most beautiful woman in the harem is the Khan's favorite wife, Zarema. Giray Khan's warriors return from battle with their booty, which includes the captive Maria, who is watched with particular care. Giray Khan himself arrives. Zarema rushes first to greet him and tries to cheer him up; but her efforts are fruitless, as the Khan is cool and indifferent. The servants escort the new prisoner into the room. Zarema notices the Khan's excitement; his eyes are on Maria alone. Zarema understands that she has lost the love of her master. She tries to regain his affection, but to no avail. Having pushed away Zarema, Giray Khan departs.
Maria's room. Lute music reminds the Pole of her lost freedom and homeland. Tranquil scenes from the past slip past her, one by one.
The arrival of Giray Khan interrupts her happy memories. He humbly asks Maria to accept his passionate love, promises her all his wealth, and finally tries to take her by force. But Maria is firm and resolute; the Khan has murdered her fiance, relatives, and friends, and his love makes her feel only horror and disgust. The helpless woman's unwavering pride forces the Khan to retreat, and he departs.
Maria's room. Night. Zarema slips inside unnoticed. Blinded by jealousy, she demands that Maria return to her the Khan's love. Zarema's words frighten Maria, who tries in vain to calm her fervent rival. Zarema catches sight of the Khan's jewels; her suspicions are rekindled, and the flames of jealousy become even more intense. In her crazed anger, Zarema pounces on Maria with a dagger. When the Khan rushes into the room, it is already too late...