The libretto had originally been offered to Jesús Guridi, who was already working on a similar theme. His Mari-Eli was eclipsed by Sorozábal's Marola, but the younger composer pays tribute to his fellow Basque - notably in the sea music, which leans heavily on Guridi's atmospheric sea-fantasy Euzko Irudiak. There are also hints of La Mer and Tristan - but if this isn't Sorozábal's most sharply personal score, his music for La tabernera is unfailingly vibrant, clever and memorable. There are few zarzuelas so generously tuneful, and the sequence of show-stopping numbers for the four principals in Act 2 is rightly famous, culminating as it does in Leandro's "No puede ser" - just about the most sung (and most singable) tenor romanza in the repertoire.
Act 1 - The harbour of an imaginary fishing port, Cantabreda, in northern Spain, outside the Tavern and the "Steamboat Café." It is dawn, and working sailors can be heard singing a love song out in the harbour (Coro: "Eres blanca y hermosa como tu madre".) Some others enter the tavern while Verdier, a fisherman, sits down outside the café, calling for the proprietor Ripalda to serve him some coffee. The orphan boy Abel (a 'breeches' role) produces an accordion and plays for Verdier, declaiming his love for the young tabernera ('tavern keeper') Marola in spoken words and song: "En la taberna del puerto". This doesn't go down well with two of the local women, who are jealously suspicious of the pretty tabernera. The fishermen head out to sea, praying to the Virgin for a safe return (Coro: "!Salve, Señora!".) Ripalda tells Verdier about this mysterious Marola. She arrived in town two months ago, set up in business by a dangerous pirate, Juan de Eguía, whom everyone assumes to be Marola's lover despite their difference in age. Verdier, surprised, says he knows Juan, and sends Abel to fetch him.
Meantime an old skipper, Chinchorro, appears with two of his crew. They are looking for Leandro, a handsome young fisherman who is spending a lot of time in Marola's tavern, and when they ask him to sail with them, he seems less than willing. Leandro leaves to work on his boat, and the old salt heads for the tavern, to see this pretty tabernera for himself. Juan de Eguía greets Verdier in the company of Simpson, a drink-sodden old English sailor who scrapes a living by acting as an interpreter for foreign sailors. Verdier is worried about speaking out, but Juan reduces the tension with a lush Habanera, in which he invites the other two to remember the times they had together in their youth ("!Qué días aquellos de la juventud!") To Ripalda's surprise all three enter the café. Then Chinchorro's drunken old wife, Antigua, tries to wheedle him out of some gin whilst nominally selling sardines to his customers. He pushes her away towards the tavern, where she thinks she sees her husband flirting with Marola. Going in, she drags the old man out by the ear, and they indulge in some colourful mutual insults before going off arm in arm on their inebriated way (Dúo Cómico: "!Ven aquí, camastón!".)
When Marola comes out of the tavern, Juan orders her to help them all in a shady plan, by convincing her young admirer "simply to go out for a little sail." She dares not contradict him, but leaves in tears. Leandro himself, gathering from the drunken Simpson that his love for Marola is common knowledge, realises it is time to act. When Marola comes out to serve him, he pours out his feelings - though she warns him to have nothing to do with her, and go back out to sea (Dúo: "Marinero, vete a la mar".) He leaves, determined to win her love - and Marola is still in a daze, when young Abel starts spouting love verses at her, too. Gathering herself together, she laughingly tells him he's still only a boy and sends him off towards the café.
A group of local women led by Antigua surround the tabernera, accusing her coarsely of sending their men crazy with lust. Marola gives as good as she gets - if they weren't such drunken sluts they wouldn't have such difficulty keeping their husbands sweet (Final: "!Aquí está la culpable!".) Things take a nasty turn when Juan comes in, knocks Marola to the floor and sends her crying back into the tavern. He asks the women whether this is good enough for them, and they shamefacedly withdraw. Abel bravely speaks out, but Juan dismisses him with imperious good humour, settles down to smoke his pipe, and smiles as he listens to Leandro singing in his boat.
Act 2 - Inside the Tavern later in the day. The sailors' noisy Coro: "Eres blanca y hermosa" prompts Simpson to ask Marola for a proper song to shut them up. Juan orders her to obey, accompanying on guitar as she sings a gentle romantic legend about an old musician, his magic flute, and how he charmed the birds - which she herself imitates in her Romanza: "En un país de fabula". Chinchorro, Simpson and the others applaud her, and Juan responds with a cheerful number in praise of women and their innumerable charms (Canción Chíbiri: "La mujer, de los quince a los veinte".) Later he goes off to find some cutlery for Ripalda, who pretends he has a sudden influx of customers - in reality he's smitten with Marola, like all the rest. Chinchorro and Simpson worry that their mysterious plan will fail, and that despite Juan's obvious optimism the customs officers are on to them. Abel reveals to the shocked company how Juan has mistreated Marola. Appalled, the sailors leave furiously, led by Chinchorro shouting "Death to Juan!" leaving the maudlin Simpson alone apart from four, sleeping black marines from an American cruiser. As they doze fitfully, he enigmatically exhorts them to wake up and realise how the white man is exploiting their Negro race (Romanza: "Despierta, negro".) One of their officers appears at the window, and the black marines march off like automata as soon as he blows his whistle.
Leandro comes in just in time to stop Simpson following them to cause trouble. In return the Englishman explains the whole plot to him - how Juan is using Marola as bait to get Leandro to smuggle in a shipment of cocaine. He warns the youngster that if things go wrong it will mean jail, and leaves the sailor confused and unhappy. In a famous song Leandro wonders aloud - can Marola really be so bad? No, she is unhappy, but would never lie to him (Romanza: "!No puede ser!".) When she comes into the bar, he tells her he will do anything to win her, even commit a criminal act. Horrified, Marola confesses she loves him, but they are interrupted by Antigua. As soon as Marola goes to sort out the empty bottles, the old woman takes the opportunity to thank Leandro for falling in love with the tabernera - now the married couples can live in peace again.
When she also tells him how Juan hit the tabernera in front of the women, he has to be restrained from going straight out to drown his rival by Marola herself, now forced to reveal her true story. Over an orchestral accompaniment, she tells him she was born far away. After her mother died, she was forced to accompany Juan in his ill-starred wanderings - because he is her father (Relato: "Yo soy de un puerto".) Leandro pledges to forgive Juan and to keep Marola's secret, as they swear their love to one another. They plan to collect the cocaine together, before simply throwing it in the sea.
Ripalda, looking for another pretext to chat up Marola, comes to return the cutlery he borrowed earlier. Abel is hanging around too, and the two join the object of their affection in a witty and good-humoured Terceto: "Marola resuena en el oído". After they leave, Marola warns her father that the fishermen are wanting to lynch him for his maltreatment of her, but he laughs at the threat - and anyway, it was only done to keep the women quiet. He asks her whether she has seen Leandro. She begs him not to involve her lover in the business, but Juan pleads with her to give him this last chance to get rich. The fact that she loves Leandro makes him the most suitable courier for the cocaine. She is appalled at his cynicism (Final: "!Padre, deja que te bese!".) Then, when the sailors try to dissuade Leandro from getting involved with a villain who beats his woman, he awkwardly tells them that Abel was probably making it all up. When Abel proves him wrong he finally agrees to talk to Juan - alone, and the sailors leave, to avoid witnessing the inevitable fight. Juan's negotiation, however, centres on Leandro's price for fetching a package in his boat and bringing it to Juan that night. If he wants the woman, he can take her. Leandro shakes hands on the deal, Marola unhappily fetches drinks, and the rest of the sailors reappear cautiously, surprised to find the "deadly rivals" smiling together and sharing a bottle. Abel bursts into tears, and Marola comforts him as the curtain falls.
Act 3, scene 1 - That night, in an open boat. Leandro and Marola are alone at sea. In another duet, they take comfort in the power of their love (Dúo: "Por el ancho mar".) Suddenly, a wind whips up from the North West - the dreaded Galerna. Leandro makes for safety as the storm breaks above their heads, and the scene ends with a triumphant orchestral statement of the love theme, hinting at their salvation with the dawning day. An Intermedio - an orchestral repeat of the dúo cómico from Act 1 - leads into the final scene.
Scene 2 - outside the Tavern, as in Act 1. The door is barred shut, and Abel disconsolately repeats his little accordion song "En la taberna del puerto" to the waiting sailors. Chinchorro and his crew believe that Leandro and Marola, caught in the storm, are at the bottom of the sea. Ripalda is fairly happy that the competition seems to be scuppered - until Antigua comes on the scene announcing she has found a marvellous dive selling all kinds of cheap drinks. Before the sailors can set off, Juan appears, looking ghastly. He goes to open the tavern door, but thinks he sees Marola's ghost and collapses, asking forgiveness and explaining that she was his daughter. The men and women are initially surprised, then moved to pity by his powerful disburdening of guilt and grief (Solo: "No te acerques".) Simpson rushes in, announcing that Marolo and Leandro are alive, but have been arrested by the customs officers with the cocaine still in their possession. Everyone calls upon Juan to take the guilt upon himself, and as Leandro and Marola appear in custody, he embraces them both, confessing his crime and asking the soldiers to arrest him alone (Final: "Yo sólo fui culpable".) He is taken away, leaving Marola distraught in Leandro's arms. Simpson asks Ripalda to cook him a stew - otherwise he'll start believing there is a God. Young Abel sadly kisses his accordion, and as the two lovers shut the tavern door behind them, he quietly throws it into the harbour as the curtain falls.