As in opera, it is the music which defines and drives the drama and characters of Doña Francisquita - a factor which has made this the most frequently recorded of any Spanish theatre work, and her most consistently successful export to the wider world. As in the earlier Bohemios, Vives manages to have lyrical Romanzas and Dúos rubbing shoulders with ensembles, choruses, street music and popular songs; but here the level of structural integration is much higher. His sophisticated harmonic and orchestral palette is cunningly deployed, not least in the sensuous, opulently nocturnal Coro de Románticos; yet set pieces such as the clamorous wedding scene from the first act, and the virile Fandango from the last, come across with a direct power as thrilling as anything in zarzuela.
Above all Vives characters, though rooted in commedia archetypes, display real individuality and subtlety in their amorous machinations. Francisquitas Canción del ruiseñor is far more than simply the finest coloratura display piece in the repertoire, combining wit and magic in a way which brings the girls attractions fully to life. Auroras quicksilver personality and emotional force are brilliantly portrayed in her Dúo with the correspondingly callow Fernando. He himself can be felt growing to maturity through his encounters with Francisquita, a process which culminates in the glowing, lyric outpouring of Por el humo se sabe donde está el fuego, perhaps the supreme tenor Romanza in the zarzuela tradition. Altogether it is no exaggeration to say that in Doña Francisquita, Vives created one of the most enduring works in twentieth century music theatre, one whose quality is at length being recognized the world over.
Act 1 - A plaza in mid-nineteenth century Madrid, on Carnival eve. The brief Preludio paints a vivid picture of the lively street scene. A tinker and a pedlar are crying their wares (Escena: ¡El lañador!;) whilst two students, the would-be poet Fernando Soler and his friend Cardona, talk of the formers love for Aurora la Beltrana, a popular actress who only requites him by mocking his inexperience. Whilst this is going on Francisquita and her mother Francisca come out of the church with some friends. The young girl is in love with Fernando despite his obvious preference for the actress, who goes into a refreshment stall owned by her accepted lover, Lorenzo Pérez. Dropping her handkerchief to attract Fernandos attention Francisquita takes the opportunity to engage him in flirtatious conversation (Señorita Caballero.) Cardona praises Francisquitas beauty, but his hints fall on deaf ears. The two women finally go back into their house, and the cries of the street sellers are heard once again.
Cardona tries to make his poetic friend understand that the dropped handkerchief was a sign, and when Fernando hears Francisquita singing inside her house he begins to take the hint (Terceto: Peno por un hombre, madre.) After the students go into the church to order flowers for the wedding of a friend, Doña Francisca berates her daughter for vulgar behavior. They receive a visit from Don Matías, Fernandos father. He has come not to court the mother, as both initially hope, but the daughter. Francisquita plays along and pretends to accept his proposal, solely in order to make Fernando jealous. La Beltrana reappears with her friend Irene, and orders the jealous Lorenzo to find her a carriage to take her to the Carnival. Much to Cardonas irritation she continues to mock Fernando, who gives as good as he gets in the Cuarteto: Allí la tienes, before she retreats to the refreshment stall.
Cardona stops the angry Fernando following them, and dismisses Aurora as an empty-headed flirt a comment overheard by Matías, who believes they are discussing Francisquita and gives his son a good dressing down. Cardona and Fernando hear the wedding party of their student friends coming towards the church accompanied by a rondalla of bandurrias and guitars (Coro: Cuando un hombre se quiere casar;) and the two students lead their friends in a joyful song encapsulating the youthful spirit of Madrid (Canción de la Juventud: Canto alegre de la juventud.)
When Don Matías reveals his successful proposal, Cardona convinces Fernando to flirt with his prospective mother-in-law in order to aggravate Aurora. When Francisquita reappears Fernando puts his ruse into operation (Escena: Ese es mi nombre".) She sings the witty, sensual Song of the Nightingale about a triangular love affair involving a nightingale, a rose and a bee (Canción del ruiseñor: Era una rosa que en un jardín) and Fernando finally understands how desirable she is. Francisquitas mother calls, and when she leaves the poets thoughts return to Aurora, who still holds sway in his heart. A group of musicians arrived for the Carnival sing a lusty street song, and the actress provokes Fernandos jealousy once more by singing of her own pride in being a simple Madrid girl (Pasacalle: Me ha dicho mi marido Soy madrileña.) The act ends as the wedding party emerge from the church, watched by Fernando and the secretly confident Francisquita. The acclamations of the crowd mingle with Auroras blessings, as she leaves in her carriage and wishes the couple a long and happy life (Final: ¡Vivan los novios!.)
Act 2 - An esplanade alongside the Madrid Canal. Auroras singing inside a nearby tavern attracts the praise of various listeners outside (Escena: Cunado te digo que vengas.) The Confradía de la Bulla, Brotherhood of Noise, appear amidst the merry throng and perform their ebullient street act (Terceto: Con el tirolirolí.)
Cardona appears disguised as a pretty woman. Fending off several male admirers, he regrets thinking up such an idiotic ploy to get close to the girls without attracting suspicion. Don Matías and Doña Francisca bring Fernando along to meet his future mother in law, which only feeds his growing passion for Francisquita. The girl provokes Fernando into declaring his love, continuing to tease him by reminding him of his passion for Aurora in their extended Dúo: ¡Le van a oír!. When Matías returns to pay court, the young man is stricken with horror at the idea that his new love would marry his father to become Doña Francisquita. He sings of being torn between the two women in a celebrated Romanza: "Por el humo se sabe donde está el fuego.
Doña Cardona reappears, and successfully provokes Aurora by pretending to be Fernandos sweetheart. Much to the jealous actress chagrin, Fernando tells Aurora that she no longer has any power over him in their feisty Dúo: ¡Escúchame!. When Don Matías formally introduces his son to his prospective mother in law (Quinteto: Bella estrella de la tarde ¡Ay, Madrid de mi alma!) both he and the girls mother are alarmed by the young couple's excessive intimacy. Cardona encourages his friend to persist, and when Francisquita pretends to faint into Fernandos arms Don Matías is apoplectic with rage.
Carnival revellers arrive and an impromptu dance is arranged (Coro: Los que quieran patatas.) Aurora enrages Lorenzo by trying to push Fernando into dancing a Mazurca with her. Francisquita artfully provokes him into accepting, but Matías jealously intervenes and asks La Beltrana to dance with him instead. This in turn provokes Lorenzo to fight, but the older man easily defeats him and graciously defuses the situation (Solo: Pero ¿qué te has creído, jovenzuelo?) before leading Aurora in the dance. Francisquita is finally free to dance with Fernando and the act ends as the Mazurca merges into the festive carnival scene.
Act 3, Scene 1 - A Madrid street, later that evening. Distant sounds of night revelry are heard as the night watchman does his rounds (Preludio: ¡Ave María Purísima!.) The warm sensuality of the night envelopes six pairs of girls and boys gathered lazily in the lamplight to make love (Coro de Románticos: ¿Dónde va, dónde va la alegría?.) Francisquita continues to provoke her elderly suitors jealousy, and when Doña Francisca tells Don Matías that her daughter wants to go out to the Baile de Cuchilleros (Cutlers Dance) he grumpily decides to stay at home. Francisquita convinces her mother that Fernando really prefers older women, and flatters Francisca into accompanying her.
Cardona informs the moody Aurora that Fernando has gone to the dance with Francisquita. She tells him to get lost, and takes out her fury on the hapless Lorenzo. Convinced that Aurora is now in love with Fernando, Lorenzo goes to Don Matías house to challenge his son to a duel, thus provoking Don Matías to visit the dance after all to find out precisely what is going on.
Scene 2 - The patio of the Cutlers dance house. The voice of the night watchman is heard once more, and Cardona begs Aurora to sing. The actress is by now more or less resigned to the inevitable, and happily sings the cheeky Bolero: Marubú with Cardona before everyone breaks into a wild Fandango. Aurora, seeing Fernando is now obsessed with Francisquita, flounces off. Cardona explains the true state of affairs to the vengeful Lorenzo, who in turn informs Don Matías. Aurora joins in by passing on the rumors about his son and the ludicrously flirtatious Doña Francisca. When she appears to ask for Fernandos hand in marriage, the baffled father indignantly replies that shes old enough to be his mother. Cardona tactfully points out that Matías could equally well level the same reproach against himself; and when Francisquita and Fernando gently ask his pardon together in their Dúo: Yo no fui sincera Don Matías melts and gives the couple his blessing. He invites everyone to the wedding, and all celebrate the happy outcome with a brief reprise of the Canción de la Juventud, the hymn to the eternal spirit of Madrid.