Of all the great zarzueleros, Luna was most inclined to deck out his zarzuelas with the sumptuous colours of operetta, and scores such as Molinos de viento, El niño judio and the London West End hit El asombro del Damasco owe some of their success to piquant foreign settings or exotic characters. Though La pícara molinera with its Spanish folk melodies might appear something of an exception, Luna's opulently upholstered style, wedded to a sweetly sensational verismo plot, bring it closer to Lehar than Lorca. His music is masterly, a feast of passionate melody, garnished with Asturian flavourings and succulent orchestral writing - not least in the deservedly famous Intermedio (Act 2 Intermezzo) with its stirring cello tune and rhythmically pointed cross-melodies, spiced by pizzicato strings, woodwind and tambourine. It is sad that this 'lollipop' hasn't had the opportunity to make its way outside Spain, for its popularity would be certain.
Act 1 - Outside a tavern in the picturesque hill country of Asturia. After a short orchestral Preludio, the scene opens with a chorus of villagers taking a much-needed break from work (Coro Generale: "El mozo que yo más quiero".) Four card players comment on the bad behaviour of the handsome young millworker, Carmona, whose house is across the way. She is leading on two eligible young men, Pintu and Juan, playing them off against one another and enjoying the sense of her power. Pintu comes in and boasts of his plans to win the girl's heart. He starts a serenade under her window (Romanza y Coro: "¡Ay, pícara molinera! no sé lo que me hiciste") in which the other men join. The tavernkeeper, Pepa, is worried by her sister Pondala's listlessness and asks her husband, the piper Riverin, to find out what is wrong. The couple sing merrily of their happy life together (Dúo: "Lo que pensando estoy") whilst the people are already drinking in preparation for that evening's Fiesta of the Mill (Coro y soli: "Los borrachos").
Juan comes in, accompanied by his friend the hunchback Cachano, to pay court to Carmona, but before he can approach the house Pondala rushes out and reminds him that he has promised to take her to the Fiesta. Passionate recriminations follow (Dúo de Pondala y Juan: "Yo rapaza y tu neno") and she pours out her love before Juan can tear himself free - he is determined to ask the millgirl to the festivities instead ("Esta noche tengo de ir al molino".) Pondala leaves in despair, followed by Riverin who has been watching in secret. Carmona comes out of the house to taunt Juan about his unfaithfulness. He replies that she is the only girl for him, and tells her he is going to sing of his love when he takes her to the Fiesta. When Carmona tells him that Pintu has the same idea, Juan leaves furiously. His rival appears, only to be teased in his turn. In a passionate Dúo: "Yo te quiero con locura", Pintu tells Carmona of the depth of his feeling. The millgirl replies that the man she wants doesn't exist ("Ese hombre que quiero no serás jamás") but that she might be prepared to accept Pintu as the best of a bad bunch.
The village people return, and Carmona replies to their gentle mockery with a challenge - who will get the prettiest girl in the village? (Coro y solo: "A la mocina meyor".) Juan comes in all set to take Carmona to the Fiesta, with a song based on an Asturian folk tune, in which the chorus joins (Canción y Coro: "La moza que yo adoro, tiene un molinó" - 'the girl I love has a mill'.) Pintu and Juan clash, and the whole village - including the two women, with Pepa and Riverin - gathers to witness the ensuing shouting match before the two rivals leave for a fight. Two shots are heard, and to general consternation Pintu reappears, smiling quietly as the curtain falls.
Act 2, Scene 1 - Later that evening, in the bar of the tavern. Juan's "accident" - which has resulted in a nasty wound to his shoulder - is the talk of the village. Though none of the village girls knows who fired the shot it seems likely that Pintu knows something about it. Juan arrives in pain from the wound, unable to attend the fiesta. He sings a warmly passionate song of unrequited love and hope for the future: (Romanza: "Pajarin, tú que vuelas".) The heartless Camona taunts him by suggesting he should go back to his old, dull sweetheart, and twists the knife with the news that Pintu is taking her to the Fiesta, and that she has almost decided to marry him. His passionate pleas are unavailing and she reasserts her right to please herself, leaving him to curse her heartlessness (Dúo: "Juntos nos vivos".)
Scene 2 - The Fiesta. The celebrated Intermedio portrays the carnival atmosphere. Pepa and the women sing a popular Asturian-style song Las Herradas (Canción y coro: "El cura, no quiere baile"). Pintu, confident of his own merits and assured of success, defends himself robustly in reply to some ironic comments from the village doctor, Don Pericón¹- he has as much right to his dreams as anyone (Duo: "Nada me asusta, ni espanta".) Cold-shouldered and left alone, his mood softens in a tender Romanza addressed to his beloved: "La manzana nació verde". His heart was free, but Carmona has changed him. Meanwhile, Pepa reveals that the man responsible for the shooting was not Pintu but Riverin, insulted by Juan's dishonourable behaviour towards his sister-in-law. The culprit has been hiding in the tavern, and plans to escape the hand of justice with the help of his friend the doctor. The villagers are scandalised, but Pepa still loves her husband and joins him in a lively rapacin (Dúo y coro: "Es verdad que mi marido") which brings down the curtain.
Act 3 - The tavern bar, some days later. The shocked villagers are told of Pintu's death - from a bullet in the brain. Carmona, afraid of being left without a lover, starts making up to Juan again, but he informs her coldly that he is promised to Pondala. The Fiesta mood returns as Juan salutes his faithful bride-to-be, and the villagers celebrate the pairing in joyous song and dance (Coro final y solo: "No impórtame que me encierren".) The Doctor asks Juan whether he is responsible for Pintu's death. Juan swears he isn't, and the hunchback Cachano adds quietly that surely "it was the work of providence." Carmona weeps wretchedly, but the zarzuela ends with the doctor pointing out the moral - that the fickle millgirl has only herself to blame for being left without a man, after the way she has treated Juan and the luckless Pintu.
¹ originally called Don Román