As with Luisa Fernanda, Torroba provided a score of unusual length. Indeed some punctilious commentators have preferred to define the pair as operones ('half-operas') rather than zarzuelas. The music has had its detractors, mainly on the grounds that La chulapona doesn't have the melodic inspiration of Luisa Fernanda. Whilst there may be a grain of truth in this, such was inevitable in an ensemble work with room for only one solo Romanza - José María's "Tienes razón, amigo", which lacks nothing in quality. The final Dúo for the two women is equally distinguished, as is the orchestral Nocturno; but elsewhere the score is more notable for smiling energy and operetta-lightness of touch than for emotional depth.
As those fortunate enough to see the Teatro de la Zarzuela's 1988 production or its subsequent revivals can readily testify, any such doubts are blown away in the theatre, where La chulapona's dazzling mixture of popular song, catchy dance and orchestral wizardry has enthralled audiences at home and abroad. Indeed, its ecstatic reception at the 1995 Edinburgh Festival exploded the received idea that Madrid zarzuela was somehow too provincial to travel, in one, joyous blast.
Act 1 - Manuela's laundry in the Cava district of Old Madrid, 1893. After an orchestral Introducción the curtain rises to reveal the laundry girls, led by the pretty Rosario, singing a song from Caballero's El dúo de La Africana as they iron away (Coro y solo: "No cantes más La Africana".) The witty El chalina ('cravat') appears at the door, and soon the girls are dancing an impromptu Mazurka: "Las chicas de Madrí" to the tune of his organillo (barrel organ.)
El chalina flirts with Rosario and is gently teased by her and another girl, Emilia, for his pains. Don Epifanio, Manuela's indigent father, rushes into the laundry. His drinking has put him in debt to Rosario's moneylending mother, Venustiana, who is in furious pursuit. The old man just has time to hide behind a rack of petticoats; and the moneylender, swiftly charmed by El chalina's compliments, departs temporarily mollified. Don Epifanio emerges, and after thanking Rosario effusively for not giving him away to her mother, hurries out.
The room lights up as the popular Manuela La chulapona ('Top Girl') appears, and in her Chotis: "Creí que no venía" she laughs about the compliments she received from passers by in the street. She loves her Madrid life, as she makes clear in the Pasacalle: "Como soy chulapona" which follows. Emilia's father, the widowed café proprietor Señor Antonio, flirts with La chulapona; but although she respects this older man, Manuela dotes on her fiancé José María. When he turns up the couple enjoy some sweet talk, soured by asides from Rosario who is profoundly jealous of Manuela and wants José María for herself (Terceto: "¿Se puede pasar, paloma?".)
He leaves, and Rosario insinuates that José María may not be as faithful as he seems. Manuela, cursing the girl's gossip, has little time to act on her suspicions before her ne'er do well brother Juan de Dios sneaks in begging for money. Before she can deal with him another imbroglio breaks out: Venustiana has got two policemen to arrest Don Epifanio, much to the amusement of the gathering crowd (Escena: "¡Mecachis! ¡Qué voces!".)
La chulapona pawns her beautifully embroidered Manila shawl to Venustiana to gain her father's release, and the crowd dissolves. Manuela goes down the street to check up on José María; and when her male relatives saunter off too, Rosario is left alone in the laundry. José María returns, looking for Manuela, and Rosario takes the opportunity to pour out her own love, eventually bursting into tears. The soft-hearted José María takes the pretty girl in his arms (Dúo-habanera: "Ese pañuelito blanco".) The returning Manuela senses that she has interrupted something. She proudly dismisses her guilty lover, telling him she does not care if he marries Rosario instead.
Act 2, Scene 1 - A small square in the Morería district. An orchestral Introducción portrays the cheerful masses strolling towards the bullring. They are pestered by Juan de Dios, posing as a blind beggar to wangle a few pesetas for his entrance to the corrida. He sings a popular Cuban-style guajira to the crowd (Escena y guajira: "¡Válgame San Pedro! ... En la habana hay una casa".) Don Epifanio recognises him, and finally gets hold of his son's guitar to sell for drink.
José María is buttonholed by Señor Antonio, who discovers to his surprise that the young man is now engaged to Rosario - mainly because Manuela is too proud to take him back and he too stubborn to beg her pardon. The generous café owner gives José María advice to help regain her love. El chalina flirts heavily with old Venustiana, and plays a lively tune for the crowd on his organillo (Pasacalle: "Vamos, que es tarde ... Dejaría de ser madrileño".)
La chulapona appears in her Sunday best, and is greeted by the admiring Señor Antonio. They approach the moneylender's to reclaim Manuela's Manila shawl: only to run into José María with Rosario and her mother setting off for the bullfight. Worse, Rosario is brazenly wearing the shawl. To José María's shame, Manuela gives Rosario a piece of her mind for stealing her clothes as well as her man, before paying off the debt and proudly reclaiming her shawl (Chotis-habanera: "Dígale usté a la Rosario".)
José María, unable to make up his mind between the two women, has come to drown his sorrows. He asks Juan de Dios whether his sister is inside, and the well-meaning wastrel advises him to beg Manuela's pardon and make it up. The flamenco song is heard inside once more, as José María ponders his dilemma in the evocative Romanza: "Tienes razón, amigo". Plucking up his courage, he enters the café.
Scene 3 - Inside the café. A troupe of singers and dancers entertain the locals in a series of lively flamenco numbers - Bulerías, Tanguillo, Petenera and Zapateado (Escena: "Si e dices que me quieres".) Epifanio and his son are drinking noisily with a host of colourful characters including El chalina. Manuela comes in with a wedding present for Antonio's daughter Emilia, who is shortly to be married, and goes upstairs to see her friend. Venustiana comes in for a drink - much to the discomfiture of Epifanio, who coerces Antonio into bailing him out. Manuela comes down, and spots José María. Before she can leave, Señor Antonio sits them down at a table together. Watched by the hushed crowd, the couple are soon reconciled, much to Antonio's secret disappointment (Terceto-habanera: "Déjeme, Señor Antonio".)
Act 3 - The leafy Viveros de la Villa. An orchestral Intermedio introduces the final act. Manuela is about to be married to José María, and a photographer tries to line up the vivacious wedding party for a posed shot (Introducción: "¡Ande, señor retratista".) Everyone is there, except for Venustiana; the old money lender has surprised everyone by eloping with El chalina, the organ-grinder! The group breaks up to dance a catchy Chotis: "¡Ay, madrileña chulapa!"; after which Antonio makes a slightly stiff speech offering to buy everyone a meal. Rosario manages a quiet word with José María. She begs him to return to her, and when he refuses alleges that she is pregnant with his child. The shaken José María reassures the concerned Antonio that he is still going ahead with the marriage to Manuela.
Don Epifanio once more importunes La chulapona for money, and she sadly regrets never having had a father she could rely on for support. One by one the laundry girls offer Manuela the customary good luck kiss; and when the penitent Rosario approaches her she cannot refuse to listen. In a moving Dúo: "No es que te quiera besar" Rosario admits that she wanted to take José María away from Manuela out of an envy she no longer feels ("Confieso que le quise por envidia".) Now she is pregnant by him, and a lost woman. Kissing Manuela tenderly, she leaves.
Recalling once again her own hapless childhood, the generous Manuela will not hear of the unborn child being brought up without a father. In the Final (spoken over music) she dismisses the stunned José María, who follows after Rosario. Then, to Antonio's delight, Manuela calmly tells the café owner that she will marry him after all. He hurries off to tell his daughter and friends the good news; but once alone, the heartbroken Manuela concedes that in the long, sleepless nights ahead, she will think only of José María.