Pío Baroja was perhaps the most eminent novelist of the post-Galdós generation, and the young Sorozábal had difficulty convincing the Grand Old Man of Spanish Letters that this sketch of the final parting between a failed painter and a street walker was at all suitable for operatic treatment. Barojo relented when the composer showed him the first draft of a libretto, and once given the green light Sorozábal swiftly completed a score that is terse, satirical and poignantly romantic by turns. The Prólogo - a post-war addition dovetailed into a 1945 Barcelona production - is seamlessly integrated with the main action. The artistic beggar offers a conscious counterthrust to the famous Prologue of Leoncavallos Pagliacci, asking us to remember that what we are about to see is not sensational verismo, but all too real. Maybe, he suggests - and as Calderón argued in his greatest play - it is better to live in a dream.
Trini's parting from Ramón demonstrates the beggar's despairing thesis. Their colloquy - desultory, argumentative and passionate by turns - is set with sensitive fluency in a mixture of arioso, recitative and fragmentary spoken dialogue over music. Virtually everything stems from the bitter-sweet 'dream' theme heard at the very beginning, and Sorozábal's symphonic structural command is impressive by any standards. The bar ambience is sharply etched through a fugal, Berlioz-like student row; an outrageously jolly chotis for the murder story read out of The Herald; a recurrent, lazy habanera with offstage humming chorus; a sentimental dúo for violin and bar piano ... but perhaps the most memorable music of all is reserved for the brief, mantra-chorus for the prostitutes as they emerge from the shadows to follow their nightly trade, a haunting and unusual Prayer to the Moon, evocative as an Albéniz nocturne.
Prologue - A brief, tender Preludio presents the main musical theme of the work. The curtain swiftly rises to reveal another curtain, through which an old beggar pokes his head. He introduces himself as an unsuccessful poet, forced to present a prologue to his own work (Prólogo: "¡Señoras, señores!"). Worse, this will not be a rhetorical epic full of Caesars or Cardinals, but a sad slice of realism, the conversation of a mere dauber and a street walker, evoking the Madrid of years long ago. "Realism! A bitter, sad thing - better to live in a dream". The beggar fades into the shadows as the curtain rises to reveal ....
Scene 1 - The interior of a café in downtown Madrid, round about 1900. Amongst the varied clientele, a group of bohemian students is engaged in heated discussion concerning the pecking order of the great artists. An effeminate Andalucian finally gets in his word to the effect that Titian was the ruin of painting, which causes general laughter. Ramón sits waiting, nervously glancing towards the door ("¡Si no vendrá!"). The first person to enter is not the woman he is expecting, but an old friend of his who vainly tries to lift Ramón's spirits before heading off into the billiards room. At another table a man reads a sensational murder report aloud from The Herald. A mad labourer, Gregorio Tarambana ("loony") has murdered his little daughter, and his wife has died of a seizure - all of which grisly tale is related to the strains of a jolly, jazzy Chotis: "Al volver cansando a su buhardilla".
The waiter asks him whether the murderer will be executed, but the Herald reader cynically suggests that he'll get away with it, as madness counts as "extenuating circumstances". They'll treat and cure him - and then garrotte the fellow! The Beggar re-appears, bemoaning the inconsistency of the damp spring weather which alternates hot and cold and leads to sneezes and - worse - "stupid cupid" rearing his ugly head. When the waiter asks him pointedly whether he wants anything; the beggar makes his excuses and merges into the background once again.
Trini, Ramón's former lover, appears at last. The two old friends indulge in some gentle banter whilst waiting for their coffee: Ramón is hard up as usual, but brusquely refuses a hand-out from Trini - he wants no part of the proceeds of her "honest toil". Her pride is stung. She answers him sharply, and soon they are arguing - just like in the old days. Changing the subject, she asks how his latest girlfriend - Petra, a married woman - is getting on. When Ramón replies that she's got herself fixed up with a rich sugar daddy, putting him out of the picture, Trini attacks Petra and her husband for indulging such goings-on. Ramón jokes that she's no better herself, and Trini indignantly rounds on him: if she'd had the luck to get married, she would never have cheated on her man for a no-good pauper like him.
Trying to put her in a better humour, Ramón suggests they enjoy one last wild night together. No way, Trini tells him, as her friend Milagro has arranged a client for her. How is Ramón getting on? He tells her that he's had enough of this Bohemian life, and must go back to the countryside to work on the fields. Saddened, Trini muses that he had it in him to be a great painter, as everyone agreed: "¡Ramón es un artista! ¡Ramón llegará!" ("Ramón is a true artist! Ramón will make it!") Well, he responds, everyone was wrong. Things never went right for him after he burned his best work, a portrait of Trini herself painted when they were young and in love. Destroying it when she left him damaged his talent irreparably.
A violinist and bar pianist begin to play a sentimental Dúo, and the pair fall silent. Seeing Ramón struggling to make a workable cigarette out of a few remaining strands of tobacco, Trini orders expensive cigars from the waiter. Once again, Ramón proudly tells her to keep her money - he can pay for himself. Under the spell of the café music, they drift into gentle reminiscence of their happy time together, living in Ramón's cold studio ("¡Esta música, cómo me recuerda aquellos tiempos!"). Trini fondly recalls the wet spring afternoon they spent in the suburb of Moncloa, when Ramón first swore he loved her (Solo: "¿Recuerdos aquella tarde que me juraste amor?"). Ramón remembers a poor poet, sick with tuberculosis, to whom they gave house room: he had praised Trini for her warm-heartedness (Vals: "El poeta pobre"). She asks what happened to the man? Died, of course, in the hospital. Dead or gone, Ramón tells her, like all their old acquaintances. Now other young dreamers have taken their place: "Things are the same; we alone have changed".
The bar curtains are drawn, and several women emerge from the shadows into the glare of the gas lamps outside. They are the local street walkers, invoking the moonlight to help their trade and keep them safe (Coro: "¡Noche! Noche triste y enlutada"). A whistle is heard, and Trini prepares to leave. Ramón tells her she is the lucky one and will soon forget him, but she replies that he at least has some sort of life before him - he will marry and have children back home in his village, while she ... can only end up in the hospital or as a suicide off the bridge. Moved, Ramón pleads with her to give him one last chance, but she refuses: maybe she has more pride than she should, but neither he nor anyone can give her back what she has lost (Dúo: "¡No! Trini, no").
To the coarse, macho strut of a bullring Pasodoble, Trini's client swaggers in, and she quickly leaves with him. The Herald reader tells Ramón not to grieve, and the waiter chips in: "When a woman goes, another comes". Ramón is sunk in despair: "It's not just a woman who's gone ... it is youth, and that will never come back!". He leaves the bar, brushes away the street walkers and wanders off into the night. Finally, the beggar steps forward, repeating his cry from the opening of the opera: "Realism! A bitter, sad thing". Relighting the stub of Ramón's cigar, he savours the smoke as the curtain falls to the bitter-sweet theme of the Preludio - "better to live in a dream!".