Carreño and de Sevilla's libretto has a delightful tongue-in-cheek romantic zest. The music is luscious, witty and ingeniously scored, and the hit numbers from Don Manolito were among the last zarzuela songs to achieve mass popularity. To a remarkable degree Sorozábal succeeds in having his cake and eating it, gently mocking the timeworn conventions of the genre whilst indulging himself gloriously in its honest sentiment. The result is an evergreen score of enormous charm.
Act 1, scene 1 - Inside Don Jorges chalet at a skiing resort in the Sierra near Madrid. Don Manolito and his old friend Don Jorge are playing poker with two young acquaintances, Nica and Emilio. Seeing some youngsters heading off for the ski-slopes (Coro: "Juventud que escalaste",) the two older men mock themselves for having one foot in the grave. When they are left alone, Don Jorge proposes marriage to fellow confirmed bachelor Don Manolito - with his niece Margot. His friend laughs off the suggestion, partly because he enjoys the freedom of the single life, and partly because he considers the difference in age too great. Their conversation is disturbed first by Nica's affluent, sporty aunt-protectress Doña Candida in pursuit of her simple-minded nephew, convinced he will be trapped into an unsuitable relationships; and again when Emilio comes in with Leocadia, the young daughter of his tailor, to whom he is in heavily in debt. He manages to smooth-talk her into extending his credit.
Margot, having conveniently hurt her leg in a slight skiing accident, makes an impressive entrance in the arms of Guillermo, a brutally handsome young athlete. In a voluptuous Habanera: "Yo hubiese querido", the plausible Emilio tenderly expresses his solicitude, but she only has eyes for Guillermo. Unfortunately, he thinks of nothing but athletic pursuits, though he does sincerely value Margot as a friend (Solo: "Dicen que el amor".) Eventually humiliated, she storms off - strangely without needing help from anybody - leaving Guillermo to his dreams of sporting glory. When Don Manolito encourages him to follow the obviously smitten girl, he simply fails to grasp the point. The older man's romantic visions of marital bliss (Romanza: "En la vida de casado") mean nothing to him at all. Don Jorge has sounded Margot out and when his niece reappears he finds a pretext to leave her alone with his old friend. Poor Don Manolito is too abashed to say anything, except to stress his advanced age, but Margot cuts him short. She tells him she can deny her uncle nothing - if he insists she must marry Don Manolito, she will obey. Don Manolito promises her that he would never marry her against her will (Dúo: "No sé por qué lloro".)
Scene 2 - The snowy garden in front of the chalet. Doña Candida has caught up with Nica, who plainly prefers the much more attractive prospect of a chat with Leocadia. The old amazon, however, carries him away from the danger zone. Leocadia discovers Emilio's duplicitous nature from Margot, and curtly informs him that he'll have to pay his debts to her father after all. Don Jorge, misunderstanding the nature of Don Manolitos promise to his niece, leaves the "happy couple" alone together again. When the unhappy Margot tells him of her passion and Guillermo's coldness, Don Manolito reassures her - she will be married to Guillermo within six months, he will see to that himself. Pretending indifference, Don Manolito tells Margot of a secret passion of his own, and recites some verses which he has dedicated to his beloved (Romanza: "Dile".) Margot, deeply moved, wishes she had chosen somebody who could write so passionately to her.
Scene 3 - Inside the chalet. Emilio confides his dire financial straights to Nica - if he cannot marry the rich Leocadia, with her country estate in Malaga, he must set his cap at Margot. Nica agrees to help by pretending to Leocadia that Emilio has gone off in despair to Madrid, in the hope she will leave the resort in pursuit. When it comes to it, Nica rather fancies her for himself, but Leocadia soon disabuses him of Emilio's stories about country estates, and laughs at him for dreaming (Dúo cómico: "Sueña".) Doña Candida swoops to carry the weak-willed Nica away again, and Leocadia, genuinely upset, goes in pursuit of Emilio.
When the coast is clear Emilio makes another attempt to charm Margot. Don Manolito, entering with Guillermo, gets rid of the young adventurer by telling him that he is engaged to Margot himself. When the older man urges Guillermo to court his devoted girl, the athlete is stupefied, until Don Manolito offers to coach him in appropriate sweet talk. Margot, swiftly divining the source of her beloved's new-found eloquence, begins to discern Don Manolito's own deep feeling for her. (Final: "Margot: yo te quiero") - whilst Don Jorge, blissfully believing his plan has worked, announces Margots engagement to Don Manolito, to the joy of everyone but the complete bafflement of Guillermo.
Act 2 scene 1 - A public garden in the resort the following Spring. The snow-capped peaks of the Sierra are clearly visible. Emilio and a group of youngsters amuse themselves with a spirited choral Ensalada Madrileña, a medley of popular songs in praise of the capital. Don Jorge chides Don Manolito for not getting on with the marriage. He is worried by Margot's attentions to the opaque Guillermo, who spends all his time listening to football commentaries down the telephone, and by the predatory Emilio. Don Manolito pretends to be shocked and angry (Romanza: "Es tu pecho ingrato") - Don Jorge has to restrain him from taking revenge there and then, as Guillermo arrives with Margot in tow. The athlete is over the moon, as his football team Maravillas has just won. Showing more animation than he ever has over Margot, he describes the superb passing manoeuvre that led to the winning goal (Canción: "¡Alirón!".)
Margot herself is growing disillusioned with the macho Guillermo and his sporting obsessions, sadly lamenting that her affection is completely wasted (the beautiful Romanza: "Una rosa en su tallo".) Piqued, she confirms to the ever-hopeful Emilio that Don Manolito really is her fiancé. Doña Candida finally disabuses the enraged Don Jorge of his belief in Margot's devotion to Don Manolito, whilst Leocadia, despite Emilio's cynical ill-usage, admits she has fallen in love with him. This relieves Don Jorge of one worry at least - though perhaps Nica is still a danger? Margot confides her bitterness to Don Manolito - despite his good offices, she will not marry such a thoughtless hulk as Guillermo (Dúo: "No te dejes llevar del enojo"). As the voices of the youngsters echo from the distance (Coro: "El amor no es sólo un niño"), Don Manolito wisely refuses to accept her offer to marry him on the rebound and reflects on the folly of all this loving. Who, Margot slily asks him, is really the fool?
Scene 2 - The pine woods bordering on Don Jorge's chalet. After sending the furious Doña Candida in protective pursuit of Nico yet again, Don Jorge gives his thoughtful old friend a valuable bracelet, to present to Margot as a formal betrothal token. When Margot and Guillermo enter, smiling, arm in arm Don Manolito naturally believes that they are reconciled - especially when Margot tells him that all is decided. Almost in tears, he offers them his heartiest congratulations, only giving way to his intense loneliness when they go to speak to Don Jorge (Solo: "Pulserita de pedida".) The young couple return, and Don Manolito hands the betrothal bracelet to Guillermo. She stops him gently - "no, not him - you . . . only my fiancé should put this bracelet on my arm." Finally, Don Manolito understands, and the reconciled Leocadia and Emilio, together with Doña Candida and Nica, arrive just in time to see him blissfully embracing his young fiancé for the very first time. Everyone joins in the joyous Final: "Porque lo quiso tu tío".