The absorbing quality of the music is not in doubt, though the score does not have the consistently fresh inspiration of its predecessor Doña Francisquita. Although Vives does not attempt to create a consistent mediaeval ambience, there are hints of older Spanish music about his score. Don Fadrique's Serenata, with its major-minor shifts and antique harmonies, is reminiscent of the neo-renaissance work Manuel de Falla produced during the 1920's: both composers owed their knowledge of this distant musical heritage to their teacher Pedrell. Elsewhere, notably with the heraldic pageantry of the thrilling Preludio to the last scene, a romantic nationalism is at work which parallels the operatic world of the Czech Smetana in the previous century.
La villana ultimately stands or falls by the beauty of its lyric inspiration. The Dúos for the three principal characters, especially those for husband and wife, maintain a marvellous standard; and Casilda's extended solo scene "Se fué" at the beginning of Act 3 has a sensitive Mahlerian delicacy unmatched in Vives' work. Perhaps Mahler is called to mind by the orchestration, notable for unexpected imaginative touches, such as the use Vives makes of the ethereal sound of the celesta at crucial moments. If La villana is ultimately too top-heavy to be accounted a complete artistic success, zarzueleros can ill afford to overlook a score and text of such ambition and quality.
Act 1 - Early fifteenth century Castile. A farm courtyard, one late summer afternoon. The foreman Miguel Ángel, his young wife Juana Antonia and the farm-hands enthuse over the imminent nuptials of their rich master Peribáñez and the beautiful Casilda (Dúo y coro: "Mi amo Peribáñez".) When they hear a distant group of reapers hailing the yeoman's approach (Coro: "Trébole de la soltera") Miguel Ángel, his wife and eight of the workers perform a brief, formal dance in honour of the marriage.
The bridegroom arrives accompanied by the local curé, his fellow farmers and their wives. He offers wine to his guests, lauding the wonderful vintage his land produces in a warm Romanza: "Tengo un majuelo de tres verdores". He receives homage from the peasants, in particular the clever Olmedo, who sings a Coplas: "Segador: Este anochecido case a desposar" in praise of the harvesters. A lively procession of women leads the bride to her husband (Coro: "Ya suenan los campanillos".) Casilda sings of her joy, and the pair meet with gentle affection before setting forth towards the nearby hermitage to solemnise their vows, accompanied by their well wishers (Solo y Dúo: "Jamás soñe ... Ni la parva de trigo blanca".)
Miguel Ángel discusses Peribáñez's fine qualities, though Olmedo is more inclined to flirt with his wife. Roque and Blasa, an older married couple working in the farmhouse, report on the joyous scenes inside the church itself, and soon the newly weds reappear (Coro y solos: "Nostrama ya se ha casado".) Their happiness is clouded by an unlucky accident: the Commander of the nearby town of Ocaña, Don Fadrique, has fallen from his horse when it was gored by a bull. The nobleman is carried into the courtyard and Peribáñez hurries in to make his house ready, leaving the wounded man in the charge of Casilda. In the poised, lyrical Dúo: "¡Caballero ben portado, por tus hechos alabado!" she addresses the Commander with polite solicitude. When he comes round, Don Fabrique praises Casilda's aristocratic beauty, and is surprized by the admission that she is merely the wife of a yeoman farmer.
Peribáñez returns, and the Commander, his equanimity restored, announces that in recognition of his hospitality he will formally elevate Peribáñez to the gentry as a caballero, or knight. Peribáñez is delighted at the turn of fortune and does not suspect what might lie behind it (Dúo: "Señor, feliz me heciste".) Don Fadrique departs, and the farm-hands leave the couple alone together to sing passionately of their love (Dúo: "Ven Casilda conmigo".) They go into the farmhouse; and Olmedo, come to tempt Juana Antonia, is surprised to see the Commander returning. Don Fadrique is open in his admiration of Casilda, and despite Olmedo's well-meant warnings he addresses a Serenata: "Tus ojos me miraron", full of courtly grace, to the fair yeoman's wife.
Act 2, Scene 1 - The kitchen of Peribáñez's farmhouse. The doors are barred for the night and the workers are enjoying their evening meal. In the course of a poetic Preludio we hear the voice of the Crier: Peribáñez has been made a captain by the Commander of Ocaña, and will soon lead a conscripted farmer's army against the Moors of Jerez (Preludio: "Villanos y lugareños".) Miguel Ángel and his friends have heard the news, and congratulate Peribáñez on his fortune. Casilda takes tender leave of her loving husband in a heartfelt Romanza: "La capa de paño pardo".
Despite the lateness of the hour, there is a knock on the door. It is an old Jewish merchant from Toledo, David, who requests hospitality. He brings a pearl of wondrous beauty (Canción: "Allá, en la judería toledana") which he is determined to present to Casilda without payment, a fact which arouses the suspicion of Olmedo and his friend Chaparro. When Peribáñez leaves after a further brief farewell from his wife (Dúo y coro: "Me guarda la sombra",) Roque and Blasa press their suspicion that David is in the pay of Don Fadrique in a lively Terceto: "Cayó en el ardid". When the Jew has retired for the night, Casilda appears briefly to ask Blasa what the disturbance was about, before retiring upstairs to her own chamber. On Blasa's advice she bolts her door.
Don Fadrique arrives, dressed as a farm-hand. Despite Roque's pleas he determines to speak with Casilda, but finding the door bolted he calls out to her. Casilda comes to her window, watched by Olmedo and Chaparro; in a poetic dialogue she resists all pleas, threats and courtly blandishments with polite but firm clarity. The two labourers praise her honest virtue in the face of the Commander's pressure.
Scene 2 - Next day, outside an Inn on the Toledo-Ocaña road. Miguel Ángel and the other young conscripts are served drinks by the innkeeper, Quintanilla. Old David is subjected to the insults of the farmers for his obsequious manners; and when Peribáñez appears on the scene he gets his own back by taunting the Captain about his wife's affair with the Commander. In a powerful Dúo: "¡Malvado! ... ¡Calma tus iras!" the Jew gives as good as he gets, and though Peribáñez stands up for his wife staunchly, by the end he is sufficiently rattled to ride home and find out the truth.
Scene 3 - Peribáñez's threshing barn. Olmedo, who has skilfully avoided conscription, sings a Copla: "A la fuente de la Zarza" to amuse the overseer and three boys. He plans to use Miguel Ángel's absence to assault the virtue of Juana Antonia, but her mockery puts paid to his hopes. Peribáñez, preoccupied with his thoughts (Recitado: "Con qué diversa alegría") hears Olmedo in the distance, singing about the Commander's amorous exploit in a second verse of his Copla: "La mujer de Peribáñez". Casilda's joyful greeting and honest relation of the event swiftly reassures him, and their conversation becomes a passionate declaration of renewed love (Dúo: "Poder saborear".)
The conscripted farmers march in, hailed by their womenfolk and praised by Don Fadrique. The Commander formally declares Peribáñez a caballero; and the new gentleman deftly puts his wife under Don Fadrique's protection during his absence, in a subtle appeal to the nobleman's sense of honour. The act ends with Peribáñez's determination to return as soon as possible, Casilda's fear for her husband, and Don Fadrique's abashed weakness in the face of his growing obsession (Concertante Final: "Por el tono de su voz".)
Act 3, Scene 1 - The Farm Courtyard, by night. Juana Antonia rejects Olmedo's advances once more. At last resigned to her loyalty to the absent Miguel Ángel, he determines to join his fellows in the fight against the Moors.
In an extended scene, Casilda pines for her husband and prays to an image of the Virgin that he may return home safely (Romanza: "Se fué".) Rising from her knees she catches sight of Don Fadrique, come once more to assault her virtue, this time by force if necessary. In the intense and passionate Dúo: "¿Por qué os asusta mi presencia?" she again resists his demands, but when she finally goes inside and bolts her door, the passionate nobleman can no longer contain himself and jumps in through her window (Romanza: "¡Ah, villana orgulosa!".) Peribáñez hurries in and discovers the Commandant's cape outside the window. Hearing Casilda's pleas for help, he unsheathes his sword and calmly follows the nobleman into the house (Final: "¡De nuevo mis pasos!".)
Scene 2 - The square outside Toledo Cathedral. A brilliant, festive Preludio depicts the pageantry as groups of knights and ladies arrive to process into the Cathedral with the King, admired by the awestruck populace (Preludio y coro: "Vengo de despedida".) The King and his courtiers enter the Cathedral to the acclaim of the crowd, which includes the returned Olmedo, Miguel Ángel and his Juana Antonia.
Before the people can disperse, the Crier announces the shocking news that the Commander of Ocaña has been murdered, and that the King is offering a thousand escudos for the capture of his killer. Olemedo and the others, knowing the truth, fear for Peribáñez; and as the King comes out of the Cathedral, the Captain steps forward, yields up his sword and confesses to the crime. In an eloquent Monologo: "Señor, aunque villano" Peribáñez staunchly defends his action in the name of law and morality. Casilda adds her plea for mercy; and amidst general joy the King returns Peribáñez's sword, grants pardon to the noble yeoman, and resumes his royal progress.