Above all, Los gavilanes has a consistent melodic inspiration and spontaneity which the composer perhaps never quite matched, despite the superior technical finish of later works such as La rosa del azafrán. Number after number hits the spot, the comedy numbers (never Guerrero's greatest strength) being as effective as more obviously stirring numbers like Juan's opening Romanza and Tango milonga; then there is the magically poised Romanza de la Flor for the tenor; with a high-lying line almost as hard to sustain as Nadir's famous aria in Bizet's Les Pecheurs de Perles, Gustavo's "Flor roja" is amongst the most perfect pearls in the zarzuela repertoire.
Act One, Scene 1 takes place on the seashore of a Provençal fishing village in 1845. It is dawn, and the fisherfolk are about their business (Coro: "Pescador, de tu playa te alejas".) The fifty-year old Juan explains how, many years ago, he left the village in search of fortune. Now he returns rich with the silver of Peru, though he never forgot his home (Salida: "Mi aldea"). Two old fishermen come down to the shore, and when Juan identifies himself they happily spread the news of his return. The villagers had believed him dead, but now all clamour to greet the long-lost "Indian" before he heads off to rest at his brother's home (Coro y solo: "Pensando en ti noche y día".) A choral interlude introducing the "Sparrowhawk" motif (Copla: "Palomita, palomita") prepares the next scene.
Scene 2. The outskirts of the village. The sea is visible in the background. Emma and Nita, Juan's nieces, show off the jewels their uncle has brought them from Peru. Clariván, the lame old Mayor, tells them that he and Juan were very dear friends in their youth - indeed in an exchange of sporting blows, Juan lamed him whilst Clariván split his friend's skull, and they remained inseperable ever after. Juan's brother Camilo and his wife Renata, luxuriating in splendid if somewhat overblown jewelry, appear just before Triquet, Sergeant of the Gendarmerie and another old sparring partner of Juan. He is soon arguing with Clariván as to which of them was really the Indian's best friend. When Camilo tells them that his brother intends to spend money improving the town, Clariván - as Mayor - naturally offers to administer the good works. Camilo and Renata go into the house, warning their daughters that now they are rich, they must leave their fisherman-fiancées.
A pretty village girl, Rosaura, cheers the two girls up in a lively Foxtrot, helped by Triquet (Cuarteto cómico: "No hay por qué gemir".) They respond by teasing her about her friendship with a certain Gustavo, but she denies that there is anything between them - though her behaviour when the young man in question appears leaves that open to question. The villagers burst in, shouting enthusiastically until Juan comes out of the house and greets them with a few well-chosen words in his Tango milonga: "El dinero que atesoro". Triquet and Clariván compete in a display of friendly ardour, but the Indian pretends not to remember them. He invites everyone to have a drink on him, and after the villagers head off for the inn the Indian tells his old friends why he left so suddenly all those years ago. It was to get wealth enough to marry his sweetheart Adriana. Her mother, however, swiftly married her off to an rich older man, after which there was no reason for Juan to return. They tell him that Adriana is now a poor widow.
Left alone at last, Juan hears Gustavo in the distance, serenading his love (Copla: "Soy mozo y enamorado".) The song saddens him ("Qué verdad dice la copla".) A woman's voice is heard, which he seems to recognize - could it be Adriana? It is, and soon they are nostalgically recalling their old feelings (Dúo: "Dulces recuerdos") When she presents her daughter, Rosaura, Juan is stirred by the girl's resemblance to the woman he once loved, and he offers to call on them that evening. As the women leave, the Indian catches sight of Rosaura slipping away to join Gustavo, and the act ends with the two young lovers singing together by the seashore.
Act 2 takes place in the village square that evening, near Adriana's house. Clariván with the town drummers, and Triquet with his trumpet-playing gendarmes compete to outdo one another in celebration of the Indian's return (Fanfarria y marcha: "Tocad, tamborileros".) Adriana brings them together with a martial hymn to friendship ("Amistad, amistad"), but is moved when the two rivals remind her precisely why Juan trooped off to Peru in the first place. Her proud tears are cut short by her mother, Doña Leontina, who reminds Adriana that only the Indian can save them from destitution. Rosaura arrives home, followed by Gustavo. Adriana has hopes they may marry, Leontina does not. Gustavo gives a rose to his beloved in front of Emma and Nita who admire his graceful compliment (Romanza de la Flor: "Flor roja") before tactfully withdrawing. The boy almost brings himself to declare his love to Rosaura, whilst she evidently yearns for him just as strongly.
Juan has made his decision and seeks help from Doña Leontina. Clariván, Triquet, Camilo and Renata materialise in time to hear him confess to her that he wants to marry - with Rosaura (Canto: "No importa que al amor mío".) Shocked, the Mayor and the Sergeant plead with him to reconsider, and when he refuses each charges the other with the heinous crime of being Juan's best friend. The celebrations for the Return of the Hero turn to dusty recriminations all round, though the dancing continues. Gustavo bursts in and halts them (Final: "El baile debe terminar",) Adriana confirms that the news is true, and Rosaura breaks down completely. The scandal of the ageing man's offer to the young girl finally sinks in, and the villagers turn on the defiant Juan as the curtain falls.
Act 3, Scene 1. Adriana's house at night. Everyone has gathered to celebrate the approaching wedding (Coro: "Vivan los novios") for Juan has taken up all Adriana's debts in order to force her daughter to have him, and to avoid the total ruin of her family Rosaura has accepted her fate. Clariván and Triquet task Juan with his behaviour, telling him that the villagers have begun to call him "the Sparrowhawk" for his predatory seizure of such a helpless dove. When they have gone, Adriana confesses to Rosaura that she had loved Juan, but never told him so. Mother and daughter lament together in a moving duet (Duo: "No merece ser feliz") which contains a moving solo for the older woman ("Para siempre murió mi ilusión".) Adriana retires, and Rosaura speaks with Gustavo through the open window. They agree to meet, as the villagers distantly sing the "Sparrowhawk" couplets ("Palomita, palomita".)
Scene 2. The outskirts of the village. The Finale begins as Gustavo proposes to Rosaura that they elope, and in a passionate Dúo she agrees (Final: "Rosaura bella".) Adriana arrives before they can put their plan into action, but Gustavo soon convinces her that it is the right thing to do. "The Sparrowhawk" emerges from the shadows - and surprises them by agreeing heartily with the boy. He has found the courage to renounce Rosaura, and will give her a dowry to marry the boy she loves. Dawn is breaking again and the villagers return to their song, as this act of selflessness wins Juan the Indian the respect and the gratitude of them all.