In contrasting the purity of simple countryfolk with the unscrupulous immorality of urban sophisticates, Maruxa offers a contemporary gloss on the pastoral tradition of which Handel's Acis and Galatea is the classic musical expression. Like Handel's shepherd-lovers, Maruxa and Pablo face a powerful external threat - though their Lady of the Manor is a more sophisticated antagonist than the ugly, brutal giant Polyphemus. Indeed Rosa's intrigues, together with the tribulations of her put-upon overseer, Rufo, lend a certain spice to Frutos' otherwise stilted and mawkish libretto.
There is a pervasive sweetness about Vives' score which has not been to all tastes. Certainly, the harmonic palette is bland, there is the odd suspicion of rhythmic inertia, the characters' musical language (except for Rufo's) more or less interchangeable - but far more important, Vives' melodic inspiration is at full tide, his orchestration sensual, his theatricality unerring. This is remarkable considering the haste with which the score was put together. Two of the most famous numbers were last minute additions - Rufo's song was shoehorned in from an unpublished Sardana, "Sant Pol", and the hugely effective Prelude to Act 2 was written the morning of the opening. There is a shade here of the English composer Sullivan, with whom Vives might be fruitfully compared in other ways.
When Rufo, overseer and majordomo combined to the town folk who now own the land, berates them for kissing when they ought to be working, the two shepherds mock him gently and make off together across the meadow. Rufo bewails his impossible situation - he is expected to sort out all the problems of the tenancy without getting any thanks at all. Still, he's determined not to take notice of the indignities he must put up with (Coplas: "Golondrón".)
Bored with city life, the young proprietor Rosa arrives with her callow, doting cousin Antonio in tow. She has no time for his amours, preferring the thought of an affair with Maruxa's shepherd, whom she is determined to take for herself. In a passionate, sweeping duet Rosa orders Rufo to fetch Pablo (Dúo: "Rufo, amigo",) but before the uneasy overseer has finished arguing with her, Pablo himself appears with his flock. Rosa loses little time in probing him about his love life, artfully offering to stand in for Maruxa so he can demonstrate his ardour. The confused shepherd eventually allows her to kiss him passionately (Dúo: "Por nombre me pondré Maruxa",) but Rufo - who has been secretly watching - stumbles out of the undergrowth at the crucial moment, allowing Pablo to beat a hasty retreat. Rosa orders Rufo to fetch Maruxa, and when the shepherdess appears - deeply distressed at the loss of her lamb, Linda, who has strayed - Rosa and Antonio are swift to offer her comfort. (Cuarteto: "Ay, por dios señorita".) When the sympathetic Rosa offers Maruxa the post of personal maid, the shepherdess - overcome with gratitude - agrees and the three of them leave for Rosa's mansion. A few seconds later Pablo appears, having rescued Linda from a steep cliff. Rufo has to tell him that Maruxa has gone with Rosa, leaving Pablo in doubt and sadness.
Act 2, Scene 1 - Outside Rosa's mansion, above the plain. After a rousing orchestral Preludio, we find Rufo grumbling as he waters the plants and flowers. When quite sure he is alone, he tries to decipher a letter he has brought from Pablo to the girl. Maruxa herself comes in with Antonio and Rosa, who loses no time in extracting Pablo's letter from the suspicious overseer. Antonio reads the letter out, adding his own sophisticated gloss on Pablo's simple bit heartfelt words. Pablo wants to meet his shepherdess that evening, and Maruxa - who cannot read - asks Rosa to reply on her behalf, naming the hour, which Rosa changes with the intention of meeting Pablo herself (Cuarteto de la carta: 'Letter Quartet'.) She sends Rufo off to deliver the reply, but before he can leave, Antonio waylays him, changing the hour yet again so he can meet with Maruxa himself. A group of shepherds and shepherdesses come to celebrate the return of the Lady of the Manor with song and dance (Coro y danza de pastores: "Aunqu'a tua porta me poñan.") As they are leaving, a thunderstorm blows up which provides an impressive Intermedio before the last scene.
Scene 2 - Later that evening. The storm has passed. Rufo, exasperated by the gentry's behaviour, returns with Pablo, leading him to an arbour where he can secretly wait for Maruxa. When Rufo has gone to fetch his beloved, Pablo sings of his unswerving love for the shepherdess in a Romanza Nocturnal: "Aquí n'este sitio" of touching nobility, couched in Galician dialect. Rufo brings the two lovers together, before they sing of their joy at being reunited (Terceto: "Allí tienes a tu Pablo".) As they leave, Antonio and Rosa appear in the shadows, both disguised in shepherd costume. They clasp one another under the impression that they are embracing Maruxa and Pablo respectively, but at that moment the real shepherd-lovers are heard descending the hill in the moonlight. The deceitful cousins realise they have lost their prey. Antonio is ashamed, but Rosa reacts with petulant tears of rage as the true lovers make their way back to the plain, and happiness.