Rafael, painter turned guilt-ridden monk, religious mystic and passionate lover, inspired a stream of red-blooded melody that makes Serrano's last zarzuela his most insistently memorable. His Relato ('Narration') is amongst the most powerfully effective of all tenor romanzas. The figure of the wise Prior inspired music of similar quality, and for the scene in his cell Serrano contrived an unbroken sequence of discrete movements - the Prior's solo, the distant chorus and alborada, Rafael's solo and the culminating duet - which generate an impressive theatrical momentum. Set against this, and the melancholy passion of her duet with Rafael, Dolores' simple, little lullaby to her baby son is all the more touching.
Act 1 - Outside a Carthusian convent near Zaragoza. Brother Rafael, a young artist recently entered into the noviciate, is trying to teach the none too bright, young lay worker Perico the artistic technique of perspective, without much success. Laughing, he sends the lad off to fetch water to clean their brushes. Rafael is working on a major portrait of the Virgin Dolorosa, which has caused controversy in the monastery by its direct, sensual appeal. One of the brothers, Lucas, has complained to the Prior about the painting, and the pair approach to ask Rafael to explain his work. In a passionate Relato: "La roca fría del Calvario" he describes the scene: the Virgin walks slowly up the road towards Calvary, catches her first sight of the cross where her son is dying, and cries out, heartbroken and inconsolable. The Prior quietly doubts Rafaels religious vocation, whilst the more forthright Brother Lucas believes him to be inspired by the devil.
Left alone, Rafael compares La Dolorosa's suffering to his own. Every time he tries to depict the Virgin's face, she turns into a lost love whom he cannot forget for a moment. Perico distracts him once again from his gloomy thoughts, and he goes into the monastery to fetch pencils and paper to continue with the drawing lesson. The lad is soon distracted by the attentions of his girlfriend Nicasia. They dream about what they'll wear for their wedding in a delicate Dúo Comico: "Ya verás cuando me ponga" which comes to an end when, after a dance, Perico tries to snatch a kiss and is roundly slapped for his pains.
Their canoodling is cut short by the stern appearance of Nicasia's father Bienvenido. Perico's father José stands up for the youngsters, and the two men settle down for a drink and smoke to discuss dowry arrangements - with predictably drunken consequences. They leave, but before Perico can gather his thoughts Rafael comes back with pencils for the drawing lesson. José returns in fussing anxiously. His wife Juana has discovered a woman fainting in the road, hungry, worn out from a journey ... and carrying a baby boy in her arms. Rafael runs into the convent to fetch medicine, and Juana brings the woman in. She is Dolores, whose lover has abandoned her and their baby son in favour of a rich wife. She is reduced to traipsing the roads, in search of charity.
Returning with first aid, Rafael is pierced by the sight of the fallen Dolores - who is indeed his old, unfaithful love. Gathering himself together, he generously tells her not to lose hope and helps her into Juana's house. The monk stands rooted to the spot, hearing Dolores sing a simple lullaby to her baby boy (Nana: "Duerme, mi tesoro".) Perico tells his scandalised mother that he has recognised the woman's face: she is the Virgin Dolorosa of Rafael's picture! The two enter the house, leaving Rafael to brood over his description of the Virgin's endless walk to Calvary ("Camina, camina, llorosa") as the curtain falls.
Act 2, scene 1 - Outside the Monastery garden. Perico and Nicasia are snatching some time together. The baby boy has been ill, which reduces the couple's high spirits temporarily, something a kiss soon puts to rights. Dolores thanks Juana for her kindness, and promises to leave as soon as she and the boy are strong enough, although the kind-hearted woman won't hear of it. José comes in, fussing with some flowers for the Fiesta Procession of the Virgin of the Farms next morning, and goes in search of his wife to arrange them. Rafael cannot rest. Despite his prayers he is tormented by his love for Dolores, and feels he is heading for the abyss.
As he goes to enter the garden, Dolores appears (Dúo: "¡Rafael! ... Ten piedad, Señor, para la infeliz".) Wracked with guilt, she is determined to set off on the road once again. Rafael tries to convince Dolores to let him confront the childs father and force the man to repair the damage he has done; but Dolores wants nothing more to do with the faithless coward, except to curse his name ("Maldito el cobarde".) She weeps, and the pair reflect on their ruined love, which can never be restored ("Alma mía, nunca más has de volver") before going their separate ways.
Scene 2 - The Prior's cell, at first light. The Prior meditates on Rafael's state of mind, which his intuition warns him is shadowed by an earthly love. In a gravely beautiful Romanza: "Me da mucho que pensar ... El amor" he meditates on the powerful poison of love, and how it infects everything it touches. Through his window he hears the village celebrations of the festival, still in full swing. A rondalla band plays, and a young man is distantly heard singing a dawn serenade to his beloved (Alborada: "Clavellina de la huerta".) The Prior sadly shuts his window on all this "pagan happiness", and leaves to lead the monks into the chapel to celebrate matins.
The guilt-wracked Rafael breaks away from the procession, and enters the Prior's cell for confession, but he is unable to concentrate. Even here a vision of Dolores cradling her baby son disturbs his meditations (Solo: "La vida con sus encantos".) The Prior, searching for Rafael, discovers him in his cell; and in a powerful Dúo: "La mujer que fue mi vida" listens patiently as the young monk pours out his heart. The Prior tries to be stern, but is wise enough to understand that it will be better for Rafael to follow his destiny with Dolores outside the Monastery walls, rather than torture himself within them - a sacrifice God would not desire. He tells Rafael to follow the dictates of his conscience. Whatever he decides will have the Prior's blessing: the monastery gates will be left open for Rafael to make his way without guilt or hindrance. Rafael kisses his hands in gratitude and leaves the Prior to his sad reflections.
Scene 3 - Outside the monastery gates, next morning. Perico and Nicasia banter and flirt happily, until the voice of his mother brings them back to a sense of reality. They scamper off happily to find a good vantage point to watch the fiesta procession. Juana asks Dolores to stay, but privately she has determined to leave with her child. Rafael departs from the Monastery wearing an ordinary suit, and quietly bids farewell to the cloister that has offered him refuge (Romanza: "Dejo tu sombra, santa mansión".) Dolores comes out of Juana's house, weeping, but Rafael convinces her that their destiny is to walk onwards together to face whatever life holds in store. With growing confidence, arm in arm, the pair watch the procession starting forth from the monastery gates as the curtain falls ("Alma mia, tu ilusión vuelve a nacer".)