Although its 3-act structure and Ruritanian plot align Black, el payaso with the traditional zarzuela grande of Barbieri and his contemporaries, the contemporary allusions are striking. Sofia's recollections of the Orosovian Civil War in her romanza are perhaps the most obvious: "Destrozó mi país / la tragedia cruel" ("The cruel tragedy / shattered my country"). The hero is a performing artist embroiled in political intrigue, to the point where he has to masquerade as a King. The real King has adopted a new identity - as a concert pianist. Black turns out to be a good ruler, halting an uprising through his clowning skills, and is acclaimed the monarch by right when all is done.
The possible interpretations of this must have been obvious in 1942, but the Ruritanian setting and fantastic characters sugared the pill sufficiently to make it palatable to the authorities. If the sharp, political edge of Black, el payaso remains abrasive today, its vision of the artist triumphant was clearly close to the composer's heart.
Sorozábal called the work an opereta - and its Central European flavour makes this very appropriate. Spanish dance rhythms are out. Instead we have a strong tzigane element, a show-stopping czardas, and an irresistible comedy quartet in the style of a Hungarian Marche Militaire with klesmer overtones! The hauntingly beautiful theme of the "Song of the Steppes" is in Sorozábal's own vein of delicate, serene tenderness. Much of the score is masterly, spiced as it is with clever orchestral touches, sprechgesang and austere modernist harmonies, Broadway jazz, brutal marches, and a fair helping of latin sweetness for good measure.
Prologue. A stage with its proscenium boxes at a Paris theatre, the Alhambra. During the brusque orchestral Preludio a playbill on the drop curtain announces "Sensational attraction - BLACK and WHITE - The most serious clowns in the world". As the curtain rises, an imaginary public applauds the two stars of the show as they begin their act, a quicksilver mixture of lyrical romance, sardonic jests and jazzy songs (Dúo: "Ilustre concurrencia".) After a few minutes, Princess Sofía of Surevia appears in one of the stage boxes together with her aide the Countess of Saratov, and old Baron Orsaya. All three are exiles from the turbulent state of Orsonia. Catching sight of the party, Black freezes, silently gazing at the Princess. White attempts to cover for his partner, and after a hasty word between them announces that Black is going to play La melodías de la estepa ("Song of the Steppes") rather than the promised Futuristic Overture. Black moves towards Sofía's box playing a romantic gypsy melody on his violin, but as soon as he reaches her he puts down his instrument to sing the gently haunting Song ("Princesita de sueños de oro".) Sofía is fascinated, then angrily demands the man be silenced before fainting into the arms of her companions. This scandalous turn of events brings a rapid apology from the Theatre Manager, and a temporary abandonment of the mysterious performance, as the curtain falls.
Act 1. A small salon in the Princess's Paris mansion, next evening. Sofía is still indisposed, but her forthright and energetic younger sister, the Grand Duchess Catalina Feodorovna, gives an interview in her stead to a magazine gossip writer, Henry Marat, come to ferret out the scandal of the night before. Catalina explains that the two clowns are Surevians, and the emotional reminder of her homeland caused Sofía's sudden illness. Catalina goes on to repeat some racy anecdotes about their flight from Orsonia to Paris, and her increasingly flirtatious banter with the attractive young Frenchman culminates in a jazzy Comedy Duet: "!Dos besos míos!" before Marat retires, well satisfied with his scoop for "Le Journal".
Sofía nervously appears with the Countess, and explains her behaviour to the Baron, come to pay his respects. The haunting "Song of the Steppes" was composed and privately inscribed on a gold plate by her fiancé, Grand Duke Daniel Estebanoff of Orsonia - the heir to the throne - and was known only to the two of them. She never met Daniel, who was reported killed during the recent uprising, but it seems that Black must be the Grand Duke in disguise. Sofía is giving an audience to the two clowns this very evening, to establish the truth. She sings of her awakened feelings in a delicate Romanza: "Yo, que jamás había sentido", which incorporates the fateful Song itself.
The clowns are announced, and the Baron soon steers the voluble White away for a drink with the other Ladies, leaving Black alone. He muses on a portrait of Sofía, dedicated "humbly to my Prince", and then she is with him. In a fine Duet, the Princess tries to force the enamoured clown to confess to his 'real' identity. Although Black resists, he is too much in love to hold out for long, and assents to being called Daniel, after which they passionately confess their mutual love (Dúo: "Para mi Príncipe, rendidamente ...".)
The returning White is slyly amused to hear his stage partner answering to the title of Grand Duke of Orsonia, and wittily narrates the invented story of their flight and metamorphosis into common clowns (Canción: "Aunque todos nos daban por muertos".) However, he does try to warn Sofía to put her conclusions on hold now she can return to Orsovia, where the revolutionaries have been defeated. Marat and Catalina return, with the Baron and the Countess, to confirm White's news. The act ends as Sofía's entire staff of chambermaids, cooks, chauffeurs and grooms rush in, to join their mistress and her beloved 'Daniel' in mass determination to set off at once for Orsonia and reclaim their rightful places (Final: "Sofía, ¿qué ocurre?".)
Act 2. The Cabinet Room of King Daniel I in the Royal Palace of San Telomo, capital of Orsonia. Courtiers and military officers gather to greet their Queen-to-be and her retinue with song and dance (Coro: "Para ofrecer a nuestra Soberana".) Black modesty deflects praise to the new King and his Prime Minister, the Marques de Tarnevitz - White - and pales at the thought of the wildly complicated nuptial ceremonials that will have to be observed once Catalina has tracked down the old 15th century Chronicle ("El Cronikón") of court etiquette. Left alone, Black reflects on how love has had the magic power to turn a clown into a king (Romanza: "Hacer de un mísero payaso".)
White, clown at heart despite glittering honours and fancy uniforms, joins Black to transact some diplomatic business. A servant announces that the Royal Forester Zinenko has come to pay his respects, and he is granted an audience, together with a French virtuoso pianist called Carlos Dupont. Black retires to prepare for the meeting. No sooner has he gone, than Catalina breezes in with her friend Marat, come from Paris to cover the Royal Wedding, the Baron and the Countess. She has found the Cronikón, and in a stirring quartet the four of them picture the sumptuous pleasures in store - not least for the bride and groom - during the ceremonial festivities (Cuarteto: "¡Ya se encontro!"). They rush away to prepare their finery, nearly knocking Zinenko and Dupont over in their haste. The old forester is full of sentimental memories of the King as a young boy: he even taught him to sing the folksong "Adiós a la siega" ('Farewell to the Harvest.) Black receives the visitors courteously, but Zinenko - hurt that Daniel does not seem to recognise him - leaves sadly.
Left alone with Black, the pianist Dupont surprises the King by exhibiting an unusually detailed knowledge of the royal art collection, and goes on to reveal a secret door by manipulating the wall panels. At last he declares openly that he is the true Daniel Estebanoff of Orsonia. After a silence, Black puts the throne and his life at his King's disposal. In the Dúo: "¡Daniel Estebanoff!" Dupont tells his story. Deeply in love with another woman, but forced by the Emperor to accept a political alliance with Sofía, he made up his mind to marry his true love and assume a new identity. Now he and his beloved wife have two children (Canción: "Nunca tuve el afán de gobierno") and he has returned only to satisfy his curiosity about the clown-pretender who has usurped his name and throne.
Black in turn reveals his true identity. He is Alejo Ivanich, son of the Royal Goldsmith who made the plate on which the "Song of the Steppe" was inscribed. His love for Sofía has led him to impersonate Daniel and take the throne. When the Princess herself appears Dupont withdraws, courteously offering to play the piano in the court concert that evening. The scene ends with an intimate duet between the King and his intended Queen. Sofía laughs at the flowery manners of the departing artist, much to Black's chagrin. Despite her attempts to reassure him, he is tormented by doubts that the Princess loves him not for himself, but because of his rank (Dúo: "¡Ah, Daniel! ¡Ay, qué gracia Daniel!").
Act 3. The Cabinet Room by moonlight, late that night. In the next chamber a party is in full swing - as we hear from the Intermedio, a lively orchestral version of the Cronikón quartet. Dupont, resting in the Cabinet after his concert, hears Zinenko's tale of rejection. Dupont explains that it was only a matter of royal etiquette; and to hearten the old man, he sings the folksong he claims the King has taught him - that same Adiós a la siega that Zinenko remembers so fondly. This is the famous Czardas: "Deja la guadaña, segador".
Black, Sofía and their friends come in from the party and are momentarily baffled by Zinenko's knowing nods and winks about etiquette, before the old man dances a few steps of the czardas with Dupont and leaves with the pianist. Sofía finds it suspicious that Dupont knew and played the Song of the Steppes, and as soon as they are alone together Black guiltily confesses everything - what led him to this imposture, his true identity, and that of the mysterious pianist. The Princess, violently confused, vows never to speak to him again and leaves, weeping. Black calls for White, telling him that all is revealed, and that they must take to the open road immediately to resume their old career. White greets the latest turn in Fortune's Wheel with humorous equanimity.
While Black changes out of his royal finery, White puts a phone call through to Military Headquarters. He has received intelligence of an imminent coup, and warning the Palace Guard to be vigilant requests a detachment of cossacks be sent to the palace (Final: "Al habla ... ¿Jefatura?"). Black enters in peasant dress, but as the two clowns start to leave they hear the singing of the approaching insurgents. When a frightened Sofía appears with Dupont, Black triggers the panel mechanism, and decisively orders them to hide in the secret room before withdrawing with White. The rabble invades the Cabinet searching for the King, in order to kill him. They pull back the curtains, only to find the two clowns, in full motley. Black and White reproduce some of their droll routines from the Paris Alhambra, and in spite of the furious urgings of the leader, Baydarov, the rebels laugh uproariously and demand more, lingering just long enough for White's Cossacks to come to the rescue. The rebels disperse quickly, and Sofía and Dupont emerge from the secret room.
Having saved the life of the woman he loves, Black is ready to depart. Dupont, however, orders him to stay and continue his royal duties, for if ever anyone proved they were worthy of a crown, Black has done so tonight. The clown refuses, so Sofía adds her plea, telling him that it is not Daniel that she loves, but Black the clown. Only then does Black change his mind and agree to remain King of Orsonia. The operetta concludes with the lovers' happiness, Dupont's relief - and the shouts of the crowd outside the palace, clamouring to see their beloved monarch. As the curtain falls, the King goes out onto the balcony to accept the ovation of his people.