As with his music, the influences on Penella's libretto are many and varied. They range from Lope de Vega (whose El perro del hortelano is the source of the trick to solve the hero's dilemma, as in Guerrero's La rosa del azafrán from two years earlier) to Cuban novels and Los intereses creados (1907) by the great Spanish dramatist, Jacinto Benavente (1866-1954). Penella's work is elegant and economical, his characters - an assortment of clever servants and aristocratic gulls - credible and entertaining. At the centre are the two characters outside society, the mulatto Niña Estrella and illegitimate Don Gil, both of whom invite our sympathetic interest.
Perhaps 'Neo-classical creole' is the best sound-byte to describe Penella's mixture: but whatever it is, it works! His score is a gem, light as a souffle but rescued from insipidity by the romantic fervour of the lovers' music and the injection of hot-blooded native forms such as the jacabe and habanera. Nothing outstays its welcome. The scoring, in complete contrast to the coarse effects of his better-known opera El gato montes, is witty and delicate throughout. Some of the orchestral pieces - not least the card game with its pizzicato accompaniment, and the exquisite pavane - are amongst the highlights, though all give place to the sensual Act 2 Habanera-Dúo. In its poignant mixture of melancholy and sunshine, it encapsulates the whole appeal of zarzuela; and if Penella had written nothing else, this one number would have ensured its composer's immortality.
Act 1, scene 1 - Vera Cruz, Mexico, towards the end of the eighteenth century. The Cloister of a Convent School for Young Ladies. A lively Preludio in the style of a classical overture precedes the action. A group of college girls are praying to the Virgin (Introducción: "Maria Inmaculada, protégenos".) The Abbess asks Chamaco, the college servant, why he and the girls are crying. It is because Niña Estrella, a mulatto orphan raised by the Governor, is leaving the college that day. The Father Confessor informs the Abbess that the Governor will be arriving shortly with Don Diego, the ageing grandee with whom Niña Estrella is to be married. A bell rings, and the pupils, released from their devotions, run in playfully. Niña Estrella is in no mood to join their games. Though she must suffer in silence she does not love Don Diego, devoted as she is to the handsome young soldier, Don Gil de Alcalá, whom she met years before when she was a child in Yucatan (Solo y coro: "Un capitán español".) The bell sounds again, and the girls bid her farewell before running back to their lessons. Left alone, Niña Estrella prays fervently to a little cross given to her by her mother, asking the dead woman to change her sad destiny or let her die (Plegaria: "Bendita Cruz".)
Her maid Maya hurries in. She has brought a secret letter from Don Gil, in which the young soldier vows to marry her, even if he has to resort to trickery (Dúo: "Mi adorara Niña Estrella".) Chamaco tells the Abbess that the Governor and Don Diego are on their way, having been ambushed by a group of bandits; luckily the attack was repulsed by a brave Captain and his Sergeant. The Governor arrives with Don Diego, whose feathers have been ruffled by the incident. Their rescuers turn out to be none other than Don Gil and his Sergeant Carrasquilla, and the Governor thanks the soldier, promising him a substantial reward (Solo: "A este bravo capitan".) To a minuet accompaniment Don Gil is introduced to Niña Estrella, and relates the details of the incident, aided by Carrasquilla's comic amplifications.
Don Diego and the Governor withdraw for discussions with the Abbess, and the Sergeant tactfully leaves the young couple together. Don Gil pours out his love, and tells Estrella not to fear the outcome (Romanza: "No temas no, confía en mí".) He admits to her that the ambush was a set up to bring them together, and convinces her that the end justifies the means. The delighted Chamaco announces that he has been taken on as Niña Estrella's servant, and eventually the whole party sets off to fond farewells from the Abbess, Father Confessor and the bereft girls.
Scene 2 - A reception room in the Governor's Palace. A party is being held in Don Gil's honour, and the Governor introduces him and the Sergeant to the assembled company (Concertante: "¡Senoras y caballeros!".) Don Diego asks Niña Estrella to dance, but Don Gil intervenes: as guest of honour he has the privilege of the first dance. The Governor asks the girl to choose, but the rival claimants play a round of cards to decide the victor. Their game - best of three rounds at Faro - takes place to a delicious pizzicato orchestral accompaniment. Don Gil wins, and leads Niña Estrella into the Pavane, notable for an obbligato harp solo. The guests remark on Don Diego's jealous discomfiture, which is augmented when Don Gil takes the middle voice in a Madrigal the trio sing together (Madrigal: "Tos ojos son dos rayos de sol".) The Governor announces that he will ask the Viceroy to present Don Gil with the Great Cross of New Spain next day; and the act ends with Carrasquilla leading the whole party in a brilliant toast to the delights of Spanish Sherry (Brindis: "¡Jerez! este es el vinillo de la tierra mía".)
Act 2 - A formal garden of the Governor's Palace. After a short Preludio - a gracious minuet - Don Gil and Carrasquilla are discovered at their ease. Though Don Gil is feeling guilty about his false pretensions of heroism, the Sergeant convinces him to grasp their good fortune (Dúo: "¡Ah! de audaces la fortuna".) Chamaco, neatly dressed in gubernatorial livery, serves them chocolate before they depart to converse politely with Niña Estrella. He has fallen for Maya, and declares his love to the far from unwilling maid as they sing a catchy Dúo: "¡Ay, zúmbale!", in the swinging waltz rhythm of a native jarabe.
Niña Estrella enters the garden with a group of Court Ladies. She sings a light, agile song comparing love to the careless flight of the butterfly (Canción: "Como una mariposa que va de flor en flor".) The Governor enters with the Father Confessor, who brings disturbing reports of Estrella's devotion to Don Gil; and when her guardian asks the girl if the rumours are true, she candidly admits it. The Governor threatens that she must make up her mind to marry Don Diego and storms off. Don Gil finds Estrella in tears, but when she tells him that they cannot marry, he reassures her passionately that their love will overcome all obstacles (Dúo y Romanza: "¡Mi Don Gil! ... Juntos, bien mio".)
Don Diego demands a private interview with Estrella. When Don Gil withdraws, his rival tells the girl the truth about his background. He is no better than an adventurer, the illegitimate son of an unknown father without name or fortune, and unworthy of her attention. Why not respond to his own deeply felt love instead? (Dúo: "El capitán, que con torpe afán".) Estrella infuriates him by taking the revelation on the chin, and leaves him with dignity. Don Diego vows to have vengeance at any price (Romanza: "Cuando se tiene una espada".)
Act 3, scene 1 - A sitting room in the Palace. Maya consoles the weeping Estrella for her lover's disgrace and departure, in the brief, brooding Dúo: "No llores más, mi niña". Don Gil comes to apologise, and bids his beloved farewell in another tender, reflective Romanza: "Mitzilán, no llores más".
They leave, and Chamaco sneaks in to steal some of the governor's wine; but hearing his master approaching with the Father Confessor, has no alternative but to hide quickly in the drinks cabinet. He overhears the Governor's confession to the priest, of a deeply regretted affair he had with a washerwoman as a young man in Madrid. He lost touch with the son he fathered, and knows nothing of his destiny (Dúo: "Yo me acuso de que he tenido ... Fue en Madrid".) When the coast is clear Chamaco emerges, inspired with a daring plan to help Don Gil which he shares with the girls: Don Gil must pretend he is the Governor's illegitimate son! He fetches the Captain and Carrasquilla, and in the deftly syncopated Quinteto: "Con este ardid" Don Gil agrees to hazard all on his story.
Scene 2 - A large Salon in the Palace. After an orchestral version of the Act 2 Habanera, the Viceroy and the Father Confessor are discovered enjoying a game of chess, watched by the Governor's party and Estrella. Don Deigo fondly believes that now Don Gil is out of the way his path to Estrella will be smoothed (Concertante: "¡Jaque al Rey!".) Don Gil and Carrasquilla come to say farewell. In the course of his effusive apology, Don Gil manages to slip in some affecting details of his childhood by the Manzanares River in Madrid, which miraculously coincide with everything the Governor told his Father Confessor. Deeply moved, the Governor remits the young soldier's punishment and embraces him as his long-lost son. Much to everyone's delight - excepting the indignant Don Diego - he offers Estrella's hand in marriage to his new son. The pair rejoice in the fulfillment of their love, and all join in admiration of fortunate Don Gil de Alcalá (Final: "Un capitán español".)