Paloma is a Madrid street, famous for a statuette of the Virgin which performed popularly attested miracles in the late eighteenth century. This was celebrated by the annual verbena or local religious festival spilling over into dancing and street carnival revelry. Vegas text presents us with a slice of life on such a hot, carnival night, and his characters are drawn from the working people hed have observed any and every day in Madrid. We meet chulapas, young working-class girls smartly dressed for a night on the town; lecherous, well-to-do tradesmen; and Julián, a typesetter in a printing works, model of the educated working-class young man whose honesty and intelligence set him apart from the mob. Perhaps the most vivid creation of all is seña (Señora) Rita, the sympathetic older woman more concerned for the happiness of her young, former lover - if thats what Julián is - than for her own. All this, of course, is presented in the popular language of the day, and this immediacy is the source of the direct appeal of La verbena de la Paloma.
The music is unusually sophisticated in design and generous in scope for a short, género chico zarzuela. The complexity of the long, first scene reflects Bretóns study of Wagnerian and late Verdian methods, though his material is purely Spanish in feeling and form. The later ensembles, such as the steamy Soledad with its bar piano and hypnotic rhythms and the unforgettable Habanera, are even more absorbing musically. Yet Bretón knows exactly when to make an effect through the simplest means, as in Don Hilarións little Coplas, the honky-tonk Mazurka, and the breathtaking Nocturno where the most ordinary of conversations is supported by magical string melismas and flecks of woodwind color. Typically for zarzuela, there is virtually no original music provided for the last scene, but despite this imbalance - by operatic standards - La verbena de la Paloma remains the brightest jewel of the repertoire.
Scene 1 - A busy Madrid street, with a chemists shop, bakery and wine bar. It is the evening of August 14 during the verbena of la Paloma. After a substantial Preludio presenting several of the main themes of the zarzuela, the scene opens with Don Hilarión and his old chum Don Sebastián discussing their ailments, the barbarity of modern science, and the insufferable heat in front of the chemist's shop ("El aceite de ricino".) Julián and Rita, the barkeeper's wife, converse about Julián's fatal obsession with the capricious Susana. Her husband plays cards with some lads. In a heartfelt solo Julián bemoans his jealousy ("Tambien la gente del pueblo") and Rita offers to console him. A janitor and his wife wrangle about putting their child to bed on such a hot evening, some flashily dressed individuals buy doughnuts, churros (fritters) and drinks in the bakery opposite. The scene culminates in a celebratory Seguidillas as everyone prepares to enjoy the verbena of the Paloma ( Coro: "Por ser la Virgen de la Paloma".)
In a famous monologue Julián explains to Rita that he saw Susana riding with a man in a carriage that morning, and that he's determined to make a scene about it. Rita calms him down and drags him off to the verbena, after a perfunctory goodbye to her husband. When Don Sebastián accuses the chemist of being a randy old goat, Don Hilarión reveals to his friend his personal philosophy of sex - he doesn't give a fig for public opinion, likes women, and is prepared to pay for his pleasures. They're only too glad to provide them, so everybody's happy (Coplas: "Tiene razon Don Sebastián".) In particular he is in pursuit of a pair of sisters, one blonde, one dark ... their names are Casta and Susana. Left alone, the barkeeper finally heads off after his wife, accompanied by two lady friends.
Scene 2 - A street in the Latina quarter. Casta and Susana sit in the Café de Mellila with their fat, common old aunt Antonia and some neighbors and a couple of policemen, half listening to a Soledad sung by a flamenco singer with piano accompaniment ("¡Ay! En Chiclana me crié".) The girls compare the attractions of Julián and Don Hilarión, before a racket from Antonia's dogs send them scuttling back to the house.
Night falls. A night watchman and two policemen grumble about local politics as they half-heartedly go about their evening duties (Nocturno: "¡Buena está la política!".) Don Hilarión trips in to take the two girls off to the verbena, but before they go they enjoy a drink with old Antonia ("¡Oh, qué noche me espera!",) and dance to a Mazurka played by a violin-piano duo inside the café. The barkeeper arrives with his friends, then Rita with Julián, fired up to go straight into Susana's house. Rita's sensible advice is that if Susana doesn't want anything more to do with him, then there's no point making a fuss about it, so why not let her console him? (Dúo: "Ya estas frente a la casa".) The printer is incredulous when he sees the two girls flirting with the chemist, and Rita has to hold him back (Quinteto: "Linda Susana".) Finally Julián breaks free, and sweeping Susana away from the indignant Don Hilarión asks with heavy irony just where she thinks she is going. A moment of silence, and the poised Habanera concertante begins: "¿Donde vas con manton de Manila?" Susana gives as good as she gets, Antonia threatens to set the dogs on him, and everyone else intervenes to stop Julián lashing out at the old man. Susana continues to taunt the hapless Julián, until finally the whole company sweeps off to the verbena.
Scene 3 - The verbena, outside Don Sebastián's shop. Everyone is enjoying dancing to the sound of a barrel organ. Don Sebastián gets trouble from his wife, daughter, and the servants who want to go out to join the party. Julian is scouring the crowd for Don Hilarión, who quickly takes refuge in his friend's shop. The distressed Rita searches for Julián, but Antonia and her dogs find him first, and manage to get arrested by the police for drunken insolence as a fight ensues. Don Sebastián intervenes on behalf of Julián, who goes into the shop to change his trousers, which have been torn by the dogs. A moment later the old chemist rushes out, chased by the furious printer. Eventually Susana, Rita and Casta calm him down, the lovers are reconciled, and the verbena finishes in comparative peace as the crowd repeat their lively Seguidillas: "Por se la Virgen de la Paloma".