Scene 1 - An ordinary lodging room in Madrid. Asia, an ardent young woman with literary ambitions is reciting her latest poetic effusion to her pet, a caged goldfinch. Her profligate and unsuccessful addiction to publication has led her and her mother, Doña Simona, into financial difficulties. Simona is relieved to have received a letter from Asia's rich uncle, who is ready to tear up their IOU's on condition that Asia agrees to marry her country cousin. Asia, furious, imperiously tells her mother that she belongs either to her beloved Serafín, or to the tomb. Mama, however, entertains serious doubts as to Serafín's intentions. True, he has taken them both out for evening treats in the Recoletos Gardens, including the azucarillos to which she is so partial, but beyond that - no word of honourable marriage. If he says nothing tonight, Doña Simona tells Asia that they must leave Madrid for good, and go to their rich uncle in the sticks.
Their waggish landlord, the lame Don Aquilino, comes to demand the long overdue rent. Delicately, he tells Doña Simona she must pay up or get out. The old lady tells him that Asia has written a poem in praise of the botijo, a common Madrid drinking pot, which is bound to be a big hit in one of the Madrid comics, and that another of her volumes is due to be published in Barcelona (which is news to their author). Don Aquilino counters that unless he gets something on account by tomorrow at latest, he will send in the bailiffs. Doña Simona desperately pleads that Asia's fiancé Serafín, the son of a great politico and ex-minister, will guarantee them. Aquilino knows he has money - he lent him 4000 pesetas himself only yesterday. Serafín will be rich when his father dies, but until then he is living off IOU's paid for by his grandmother. The landlord congratulates them a little guardedly on their good fortune, and leaves them courteously. So there it is - Asia sees that Serafín must now prove his devotion to her in practical not poetic terms: "Oh how Horrible is the Prose of Life". The drop curtain falls, and we read Asia's ludicrously effusive sonnet "The Apotheosis of the Botijo".
Scene 2 - A drinks stall
in Recoletos Gardens. It is a warm evening, and the gas lamps are lit. The
scene opens with the brilliant and varied 'Chorus of Nannies' (Coro de Niñeras: "Tanto
vestio blanco") in which a harassed group of nannies and wet-nurses
bewail the fact that they've been forced to bring their troublesome young
charges to the Park by "the señoras", whilst the children variously
shout at them, sing songs, and demand to be taken to the toilet. Finally the
harassed nannies drag the truculent infants away.
The stallholder Pepa and her boyfriend, out of work picador Lorenzo, are in dire straights. They too owe Don Aquilino the rent, and if they haven't paid by tomorrow they will lose the stall. He hangs around because he is jealous of Pepa's customers, especially young Serafín, who spoke very intimately with Pepa only the night before. She reveals that he was offering her a hundred pesetas to slip Doña Simona a sleeping draught in her azucarillos, to give him the chance to abduct Asia. She refused indignantly, but Lorenzo points out that the money would cover the overdue rent. If there could be a way of getting the money without doing the deed ...
After a vignette of two señoritas and their beaus, wearing out their breathlessly chaperoning mama, Serafín appears. He cynically reveals that the carriage for abducting Asia is already arranged, and Lorenzo blackmails the "young whelp" into paying over double the money he offered to Pepa before he will agree to administer the opium draught to Doña Simona. Vicente, a former lover of Pepa's, is next on the scene. There have been angry scenes between her and his jealous new woman, Pepa's former friend Manuela, an itinerant spirit vendor, but Vicente overcomes the picador's jealousy and promises that Manuela won't cause any more trouble. He then wheedles Lorenzo into accompanying him to the gambling club where Vicente is doorman, to wager the money he has got from Serafín, and the two men sneak away quietly.
Manuela herself is next on the scene, bawling out her wares - "¡Agua, azucarillos y aguardiente!". She is spoiling for a fight, and when Pepa tells her to clear off, calmly sits down and demands to be served. Their verbal duel is threatening to get out of hand when the appearance of two policemen puts a stop to the row, and Manuela beats a retreat. The policemen, though complaining vehemently about the rule not allowing them to drink on duty, have to make do with glasses of water from the law-abiding Pepa. They leave, as Doña Simona and Asia arrive for the assignation with Serafín. Simona has decided to ask him for a large loan to see them out of their trouble - as he's unlikely to pay anyway, she might just as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb.
Pepa has to break the news of Serafín's dastardly abduction plan to the two women. While she is doing so in dumb show, a group of barquilleros (wafer sellers) appear. They describe their working lives, methods and clientele - to some of whom they offer a primitive roulette game for sport - in the celebrated, cheeky Coro de barquilleros: "Vivimos en la Ronda de Embajadores", before marching off to make new sales. Simona and Asia are horrified by the plot against them, and agree to go along with Serafín's plan whilst Pepa administers the opium to him instead.
Serafín arrives, and Pepa whispers that Simona has already eaten her laced meringue. When Simona starts to feign drowsiness, the lovers take the opportunity to drink zarza (blackberry liqueur) together, Pepa having laced Serafín's glass with the drug. In the delectable Waltz-Quartet which follows Serafín charms Asia back into a state of doubt, while Simona and Pepa become increasingly incensed by his villainy (Vals: "¿Está dormida?"). Doña Simona pretends she fancies a little walk to clear her head, Serafín starts to yawn uncontrollably, and the three of them leave the stall.
Don Aquilino sees them going, and gloats that tomorrow he will effectively get his own money back from Simona - with interest. Pepa calls him over and redeems her own IOU, much to his surprize, with another of the bank notes he lent to Serafín. Drawing the conclusion that Pepa must be another of Serafín's women, the chuckling Don Aquilino goes off home, elated with his own good luck. In another vignette three chulos (flashy street lads) arrive at the stall, strumming their guitars as night falls. Asia and her mother return horrified. The drug has taken effect and Serafín has slumped unconscious onto a bench. Asia, tragically disillusioned, accepts she must go back to the hated relations in the country - much to Doña Simona's relief. They leave quickly.
The Finale begins with a chorus of theatregoers grumbling about the interminable length of the evening's play (Mazurka: "Ya es más de la una y media"). A little Italian beggar boy breaks into a cheap Neapolitan song to his own harp accompaniment, but the crowd find Pepa's Spanish singing more entertaining, and soon tell him to get lost. Manuela comes back, bawling her street cry, and there is another verbal duel between her and Pepa, which everyone enjoys hugely (Panaderos: "Ya esta ahí la Manuela"). Violence is imminent when Lorenzo and Vicente reappear (Cuarteto: "Vamos a ver, ¿qué ha paso?") but the two men quickly calm their women down. There are tears and embraces, and all is made well between them. The men, having had gambling luck, have redeemed a pair of manila shawls belonging to their girlfriends and suggest they all go off to enjoy the San Lorenzo verbena, a suggestion which is joyfully accepted (Pasacalle: "Pa que veas, manuela").
After they have all left, three shadowy figures appear (to the pickpockets' theme from La Gran Vía) carrying Serafín's waistcoat, trousers and jacket. Discovering his wallet, they gleefully scamper off just as Serafín himself is hauled in, wearing just his underwear, by the shocked policemen. Despite his protestations, the zarzuela ends with the unwitting exhibitionist being dragged off to enjoy a night in the cells.