Act 1 - Madrid, the early 1790's. The Corregidor's Meadow on the banks of the River Manzanares, with Goya's house and studio in the background. After a passionate Preludio featuring a reminiscence of the revolutionary Marseillaise, the curtain rises to reveal an animated crowd of manolos and manolas, or young madrileños. A family of Blind Beggars cry for alms, a fake Palmer offers blessings from a plaster-cast footprint of Christ, street-sellers hawk their wares (No.1: "Hoy fusilan un soldado"). Though Jovellanos himself has been packed off by Godoy as ambassador to Russia, to facilitate the planned peace with France which may mean the end of Spanish independence, the Madrid Corregidor (Magistrate) remains worried about the increasing activism of the patriotic alliance. He asks the beggars - whose blindness is a ruse - for news. They tell him that a consignment of guns has been taken into Goya's house. The influential Royal mistress Doña Pepita comes out of the house and makes her report to the Corregidor. Goya has been entertaining the usual mix of dissident aristocrats, literary and theatre people, and bullfighters. The political situation is delicately poised, and the virtuous Princess de Luzán is influencing the populace with ideas taken from the revolutionary philosophies of Rousseau and Voltaire. They plot to dishonour her ...
Their ally General Cruzalcobas suggests the suppression of fiesta processions. The Corregidor replies that this would work disastrously against them. On the contrary, he himself is arranging a corrida in the Plaza Mayor to distract the populace, whilst soldiers are sent in to root out artists and rebels. Pepita agrees to help the Duchess get her lover Romero made chief of the corrida, and in return the Duchess tells her of a way to entrap their main enemy.
Captain Peñaranda has returned hot-foot from France with reports warning the King of Godoy's intended treachery. He greets his old friend Goya and the Abbot, a fellow student at Salamanca. The latter explains in a virtuoso, bolero-style song (No.3: "Como lleva en el bolsillo") how he managed to worm his way up to the dignified rank of Abbot. Goya reveals how his art depends on painting not just the aristocracy but the common people, and actresses like "La Tirana", and goes on to lament the difference between the court Peñaranda left and the coterie which is now in power. Their policy of "Pan y toros" will make Spain a French colony. Goya paints a verbal picture of Madrid, its glory and shame, whilst the Abbot praises its artists, such as Goya and the writer Ramón de la Cruz.
Doña Pepita has been watching, veiled, and comes forward to discover the Captain's purpose. She insinuates that she is in fact the mysterious lady who nursed him in France, but although the Captain is taken in, he will not yield up his papers (No.4 Dúo: "¡Mi protectora! ¡mi angel es!".) Furious, Pepita reveals that she is not in fact the Princess, and the Captain indignantly enters Goya's house. Pepita reports back to the Corregidor and the General, and when the Captain reappears he delivers an impassioned speech decrying the decay into which Madrid and the whole of Spain has fallen. A fight with the General is averted by the sudden arrival of the Princess, who calms the situation and offers to protect Peñaranda, to the fury of the coterie. A chorus of children appears to pay homage to the statue of the Virgin (No.5 Coro de Niños: "¡Salve! ¡Oh¡ Reina de los ángeles") and plead for the life of a condemned soldier as the debate between the two parties continues. Pepe-Hillo and the other bullfighters lead in the crowd, who pay homage to the Princess when she takes the pardon of the condemned man into her own hands. Eventually she leaves in her carriage, accompanied by Goya and the whole crowd as the curtain falls (No.6 Coro: "Al son de las guitarras".)
Act 2 - A dark street in Madrid, by moonlight. During the nocturnal Preludio we make out the blind beggars' cottage, a tavern ("The House of the Spirits") and a statue of the Virgin. The balcony of a brightly-lit palace is also visible. The "Blind Beggar" and "Pilgrim" are drinking outside the tavern, whilst an aristocratic crowd in the palace make merry to the strains of a French Contredanse, with subtly smutty verses sung by the Abbot from the balcony. (No.7 Solo y coro: "La grave contradanza la gusta don Manuel"). After they have finished, the bullfighters Romero and Costillares come out of the tavern and sing a popular song of the time, el Perulillo (No.7b: "Por lo dulce las damas jolín").
In a scene spoken over music (No.7c) The Blind Beggar tells the Palmer that if he is willing to help murder a certain military man, he will be well paid. The Palmer agrees, but before the two of them can set off, the preaching of a wandering brother El del Pecado Mortal ("Mortal Sin") about death and damnation strike the Palmer deeply. He has second thoughts, but when the Beggar shakes a purse at him he allows himself to be led away to plan the murder.
Pepita and the Corregidor enter. He explains the machiavellian details of his plan to root out the liberal writers, artists and architects whom he sees as the root of the trouble. First, he has bribed the blind family to allow use of their hovel for a secret meeting of the patriotic conspirators. Next, Pepe-Hillo has been badly gored during the Corrida, and if Madrid were to be distracted by his "unfortunate" death, it would be easy to act decisively. Impatiently, Pepita tells him that events have moved beyond such schemes. Through the Princess, the King has had word of Peñaranda's reports and is preparing to meet him. The Corregidor tells her that if the Captain is eliminated, false reports can be substituted for the truth and all will be averted, at least for the necessary three days before peace with France is signed. The Blind Beggar's wife warns them of the approach of the Abbot and his friends, and the two escape quickly.
Left alone, the Princess orders the Captain not to sacrifice his life. He replies that despite his gratitude, patriotic duty must come first. She is too proud to urge her love for him, but does offer him the nun's scapular she wore whilst tending him in the hospital, and which she has treasured since as a keepsake. He accepts it fervently (No.9 Dúo: "Este santo escapulario").
Goya returns with eight manolos, and the Abbot with La Tirana who tells them that Madrid, obsessed with Pepe-Hillo's injury, has let the great writer Ramón de la Cruz die in obscurity without paying its respects. Goya laments the state into which his nation has fallen.
The Princess begs them to pray to the Virgin before going into action, but as they finish the prayer the Corregidor bursts in with Pepita, the General and his troops to arrest the patriots. To their fury, the Captain produces a safe conduct from the King, allowing him to go free. The Princess begs him not to do anything rash, but make sure that Jovellanos gets back safely to Court, in time to stop the French Treaty. The Corregidor tells the Princess that she is to be detained in her Palace, whilst the rest of the rebels are to be imprisoned (No. 10a: "¡Oh reina de los ángeles".)
In another scene spoken over music, the Captain - now alone - is approached by the Palmer, who detains him by begging for his white military cloak, to shield a poor man from the cold night airs. Before the would be murderer can act, Brother Mortal Sin again crosses the stage, frightening the Palmer. The Captain gives him the cloak and leaves, just before the Blind Beggar steps from behind the Statue of the Virgin - and stabs the failed Palmer in the back. The Corregidor is soon on the scene, and finding the evidence of the bloody cloak, announces to all and sundry that "a soldier has been murdered".
Act 3 - Next morning. A state room in the Princess's palace, hung with rich tapestries by Goya. The Princess's waiting women have heard rumours that their mistress is set to enter the convent of las Descalzas, and although the Abbot has not quite given up hope, he cannot deny the truth of the rumours (No.11: "¡Señor Abate!"). La Tirana, let out of prison with Goya and the other conspirators by order of the King, confirms the rumours, and tells the Abbot of another - that the Captain has been found dead outside the House of the Spirits. Goya enters with Jovellanos himself, who having obtained proof of the coterie's treachery can place his evidence before the King. Even he cannot dissuade the Princess from the determination to take her vows, although he plants a doubt in her mind to the effect that the stories of the Captain's death may prove false.
Pepita arrives, feigning friendship, to make sure the Princess is firm to her vows. The Princess openly despises her and her politics, but in a coloratura duet Pepita argues that as the Princess was caught "in flagrante" with the Captain in a beggar's hovel, her only course is to retire from the world. (No.12 Dúo: "Quien cogida es infraganti"). The Princess leaves to prepare for her induction into the Convent.
Pepita is joined by the Corregidor and the General, who have come with the Town Council to escort the Princess to las Descalzas. Next on the scene are the Abbot, the three bullfighters with the manolos - disguised as a prior and monks - come to stop the incarceration of their beloved Princess. She warns them to attempt no uprising on her behalf - she has finally made up her mind. (No.13: "Padres reverendos").
The Corregidor is threatened by the manolos, who throw away their disguise, but produces the bloodstained cloak as final proof of the Captain's death. The last ensemble begins as Pepita and the General congratulate the Corregidor on his cunning, whilst the Abbot swears vengeance for the death of his friend (No.14: "¡Atónitos nos deja!"). The people of Madrid are equally furious with the crimes of Godoy's coterie, and the heartbroken Princess remains determined to retire from the world.