It is the 18th birthday of Donna Clara, the Spanish Infanta. Don Estoban, the court chamberlain, supervises as the servants prepare a sumptuous birthday party. The Infanta’s favorite maid, Ghita, marvels at the splendor of the decorations and gifts. The beautiful Infanta and her playmates are heard dancing and playing in the garden, but soon arrive to marvel at her birthday gifts, cheekily disturbing the chamberlain and the maids as they work. Don Estoban implores the girl to wait for the ceremony.
Left at last in peace, Don Estoban describes some of the fabulous gifts to the maids. The most wonderful of them all, he says, is also the most repulsive, for the Sultan has sent the Infanta a hideously misshapen dwarf. The dwarf, Don Estoban explains, is completely unaware of his ugliness for he has never seen himself in a mirror; he thinks he is a handsome knight. The maids hurry to cover the mirrors before the gift ceremony begins. After the Infanta and her retinue have taken their places for the celebration, the dwarf is brought in. The ladies laugh with merriment at the strange spectacle before them. Gazing at the Infanta’s beauty, the dwarf is unable to sing the merry song requested of him. Instead he sings an impassioned song of lovesickness. The girls laugh with delight at the idea that the hideous dwarf wants to be loved.
Smiling sweetly, the Infanta tells the dwarf that he may choose any of the ladies in the court as a wife, and the dwarf tells her that the only one he could love is the Infanta herself. The Infanta sends her guests away, and listens intently as the dwarf improvises a story about rescuing her from a dragon. She tells him that if he wants to love her, he must be a valiant knight; he must also be very handsome, for beauty is sacred to her. She sends him ahead into the ballroom to await their first dance. The maids observe the scene in the ballroom, watching as the Infanta presents the dwarf with a white rose in front of the assembled guests. Lost in rapture, the dwarf returns. Ghita tries unsuccessfully to bring the dwarf back to reality. His beautiful dream finally collapses when he inadvertently uncovers a mirror and suddenly finds himself face to face with his reflection. When the Infanta returns, he begs her to tell him that he is handsome and that she loves him. The Infanta tears herself away from him, saying “I want to dance and play with you, but I can only love a man, and you are an animal.” The dwarf falls dying at her feet, as the Infanta hurries back into the ballroom to dance.