In spite of all this, Alonso's sainete lírico remains a landmark. The first night of Me llaman la Presumida took place at Madrid's Teatro Ideal, on December 4th 1935. The date is significant. This was one of the very last premieres before the long-feared Civil War broke out in earnest, and if their writing is more fractured than in the earlier masterpiece, Castro and Carreno vividly depict the carnival atmosphere of the capital just before Madrid was plunged into the vortex. With its gas masks, sirens and frantic air of decadence, Me llaman ... is a work on the edge, a feverish comedy whose characters are in the grip of contrary obsessions, craving both hedonistic freedom and the security of conventional married life.
Given the correspondences between Me llaman la Presumida and the earlier zarzuela, comparisons between the two scores are inevitable, if ultimately not very instructive. Though Alonso's music is simpler and less personal than Sorozábal's, his theatrical and melodic savoir faire make him very much his own man. With its jazzy riffs and blaring saxophones, Me llaman ... is a pivotal work in the composer's output, closer to revistas such as Las Leandras than to his earlier, romantic zarzuelas, and pointing forward to the lighter style he adopted after the Civil War. The emotional counterpoise of the Act 1 duets and the Habanera for the three principals in Act 2 makes for a remarkable work which manages to be diverting and disturbing at one and the same time.
Act 1 - 1935. A small square in downtown Madrid, with a photographer's, greengrocer's, junk, jewellers, and fashion shop. A brief Preludio ushers in a lively introductory scene in which we are introduced to the inhabitants; notably Doña Olga, the greengrocer, bantering with some customers; and Paco, the shy young jewellers assistant, pining for love of his neighbour Gracia, the handsome but conceited supervisor of the fashion shop. Although secretly returning his feelings, she jeers at him for his pains - despite the sympathy of the other dressmaker's girls, Lola and Carmen, and of the greengrocer's daughter, Pepa (Escena: "Por una chica del barrio").
The photographer Don Basilio and his nephew Cayetano use their profession as a means of getting their hands on young ladies - for strictly "artistic" purposes of course - but things go wrong for Cayetano, who is chased out of the shop by a bridal party, for having suggested some distinctly out of the ordinary wedding poses. His uncle rebukes him, and warns Cayetano that unless he is more discreet he won't inherit the business, though according to Doña Olga, his own behaviour is even worse. She passes the time of day with the old junk shop proprietor, Urquijo, comically optimistic despite the fact that he doesn't seem to have sold anything for upwards of forty years! Pepa, despite being engaged to the feckless Cayetano, and Lola are on the lookout for local heart-throb Pepe "Chevalier", anxious for just a glance from the handsome young actor. Three city slickers turn up to pay court to Gracia, and are given short shrift by the proud beauty in the Pasacalle: "¿Es aquí donde trabaja?" with its famous refrain "una mujer madrileña".
The girls are leaving for lunch when Pepe comes in, coolly inviting them all to a local bar to drink fashionable "vermut". Only Gracia pretends to be unimpressed. When the girls leave, Paco manages a quiet word with his friend Pepe. Paco is in love with Gracia, but the words don't come out right and she only laughs at him. Will his sophisticated friend sound her out on his behalf? Indeed he will, and when Gracia appears Pepe tries to tell her of a man who loves her dearly. She mistakenly thinks he is speaking for himself and, flattered by his attentions, responds with warm ardour. Pepe's initial embarrassment turns to enthusiasm, and he ultimately makes a declaration of love on his own behalf in the passionate Dúo: "Hace tiempo que he leído".
Don Basilio successfully tries out one of his nephew's chat lines ("Think of me not as a photographer, but as a doctor") on an attractive young woman - much to his Cayetano's amusement, and though Pepa is uncomfortable with her lover's loose talk he half convinces her that is exactly how a sophisticated modern couple should be. Marriage, for example, is impossibly old fashioned. But when the smooth radio-announcer Heterodino pretends to announce his engagement to Pepa over the air, the boot is on the other foot and Cayetano becomes violently jealous. Harmony between Pepa and Cayetano is scarcely re-established before Olga orders her daughter back to work. Overhearing Paco's lovesick complaints, the older woman is indignant to discover they are for Gracia rather than herself and stomps into her shop. A shame-faced Pepe returns, and when Paco asks him anxiously for news he is too tongue-tied to answer his friend clearly (Mazurka-Dúo: "La cosa fue".)
Pepe is put out of his misery when the girls come back from lunch, and Gracia announces publicly to all the residents of the square that though they may call her conceited, she has given her heart after all - to Pepe! As the brief Finale begins, the shocked and angry Paco tries to go for Pepe, but his master Eugenio holds him back. Before he leaves, he tells Gracia that one day he will gain her love, but la mujer madrileño ("Madrid woman") merely laughs at his threats (Final: "Yo no es que riño".)
Act 2, scene 1 - The square, one evening two months later. Things are going along much as usual - Doña Olga chats to Basilio and old Urquijo in the evening sunshine. Gracia and Pepe have been fighting constantly; Lola, now involved in the arts, is a cause of jealousy between them, spending far too much time with Pepe despite being warned off by La presumida. Cayetano, too, is still trying to have his cake and eat it by handling his clientele - when Basilio doesn't get in first. The old photographer and Eugenio the jeweller reassure Paco that everything will turn out for the best, and he sings of his unquenchable hope in a suave Romanza: "Madrileña graciosa".
The ever-hopeful Heterodino makes a pass at Gracia, and is warned off in no uncertain terms by Paco. When Gracia mockingly asks him why he has bothered to concern himself, Paco tells her that he has made peace with Pepe and puts loyalty to his friend above any feeling for her. Gracia, impressed, leaves quietly. The older inhabitants confer with Paco and Cayetano about the Authorities' warning of possible poison gas attacks on the city from the air. No joke, it seems - a full-scale defence exercise is to be held next day, and Paco has already bought his gas mask. Don Basilio wants one for himself, and orders his nephew to fetch one. Cayetano worries about how a gas attack might affect his inheritance, and he and Pepa agree to have a good time while they have the chance, dancing and drinking exotic foreign spirits (Dúo cómico: "Yo soy un mujer").
Lola has left the dressmakers to try her hand at theatre work, and Pepe has taken her off for an ice cream to discuss her "career". When he returns Gracia taxes him with his behaviour and a major row develops, in which Paco subtly challenges the girl by seeming to take Pepe's side (Habanera-terceto: "Me llaman la presumida"). Eventually Paco persuades her to stay with the actor, though much to his own distress. The scene ends as old Don Basilio gets his comeuppance from Santi, the Herculean fiancé of one of his "artistic" sitters, Tere.
Act 2, scene 2 - A downtown tenement, Gracia and Paco's balconies, early next morning. Paco and Gracia are on their balconies, getting ready to go out. Heterodino banters with Gracia from across the way, and the young dressmaker Carmen calls from her balcony to ask Paco whether he is going to the football. He tells her pleasantly, no - today's the day for defence practice. Gracia and Paco get into sparring conversation over her pet bird, and in a gentle duet the two reminisce about the lost chance they had to get together (Dúo-chotis: "Si presumo es porque puedo".)
Act 2, scene 3 - The square, later in the day. The gas attack practise is about to get underway. Olga's greengrocery has been transformed into a Red Cross station, whilst she and the younger women are to act as nurses, supervised by Pepe, though when the siren sounds to start the exercise he and Lola soon disappear. Olga gives Gracia some honest advice - if she will swallow her conceit and forget the feckless actor, Paco is still hers for the asking. Though for how long? Olga thinks he has a ring for Carmen, though the reality is that he is only working on it professionally for Eugenio, but she advises Gracia that she must move fast. Although this infuriates La presumida, Olga skilfully brings the two together only for Gracia's conceit to stop her revealing her feelings honestly. More busy comings and goings ensue, and when Gracia returns Lola admits that she and Pepe are carrying on. Basilio comes out of the photography shop, wearing his gas mask, for fear of an attack - not from the air, but from the strongman Santi, furiously searching for him to break his neck. Olga takes him to task for being a silly, lecherous old man in a lively Foxtrot Dúo comico: "Un socio le busca". Though he can only reply with indistinct sounds from inside his gas mask, deep down he knows he'd be better off with a mature wife like Olga - after all by night "all cats look like leopards"!
The Exercise continues, and Cayetano runs on injured - by a lady client who has given him a twisted arm for his pains. He finally gives in to his fate, making it up with Pepa and agreeing to marry the greengrocer's daughter. Gracia forgives Pepe, who is to marry Lola. A man is carried in, apparently injured and wearing a gas mask - it is Paco, who then overhears Gracia giving Pepe his freedom, and admitting that she really loved Paco after all. As the second siren sounds to mark the end of the 'gas attack' he removes his gas mask, Gracia falls into his arms and all the happy couples embrace. Even Heterodino is left with a good story for his radio report ...