La vida breve
I have a grudge against La vida breve. It's not that de Falla's early score - most of it - is weak. It isn't. It's not that Carlos Fernández Shaw's libretto - much of it - isn't strong. It is. What I do find, even in a persuasive performance such as this, is a stylistic gulf between the opera's ambition and its achievement. The "magic realism" of the dances, strong popular scenes (onstage and off) and boldly-carved orchestral interludes are out of alignment with the Wagnerian monodrama of the stage action. The gypsy heroine, Salud, drops dead for reasons of symbolic poetics, not stage plausibility.
As for that grudge; well, it arose from years of having to counter the received opinion in English-speaking climes that La vida breve is the best and - saving Granados' Goyescas - the only Spanish music theatre worth staging. Whatever might be said about the paucity of Spain's through-written operatic heritage, this of course ignores a good hundred or so of her best zarzuelas. Giménez's La tempranica, to whom de Falla and his Salud owe so much, is a much more finished theatrical achievement, though the older composer barely approaches the power of de Falla's Forge music, the visceral choral interjections in the Intermedio, the breathtaking sweep and colour of the wedding Danza. It's a question of balance - and theatricality, a quality fatally lacking from La vida breve's action, which like La tempranica centres on a young man's discarding his gypsy lover in favour of a more suitable if loveless town match.
To descend from my soapbox to the matter in hand, there is much to enjoy about the Naxos performance. Orchestral playing and conducting is responsive to sol y sombra, if deficient in the precision that marks out great versions (such as those under Frühbeck de Burgos and Mata) from the merely good. The supporting roles, led by the evergreen Alicia Nafé's trenchant Grandmother - she played the Aged G. opposite Teresa Berganza's Salud for DG as long ago as 1979 - are all strongly and individually taken, not least Vicente Ombuena's honeyed Paco and Enrique Baquerizo's suavely courteous Manuel.
Manuel Cid's familiar, now vintage Voice from the Forge is alarmingly close to our armchairs, whilst his more appropriately distanced ironworking colleagues seem to have allowed their hard labour to affect their pitch. Pedro Sanz's flamenco warblings are squeaky-clean civilised rather than woodnote-wild. That's not a criticism to be levelled at the passionate Salud of Ana María Sánchez. For all the character's dominance, recordings of La vida breve do not stand or fall thereon, and Sanchez tailors her opulent, Straussian vocal coat to de Falla's cloth sensitively enough, though not without some spreading above the stave. Still, she is an involving singer, if not so affecting as Berganza or - most nuanced of all - Victoria de los Angeles in this trickily moody, introverted role.
That misplaced Voice from the Forge aside, Naxos's sound, from Ovideo's Auditorio Príncipe Felipe, is cleanly undemonstrative. Graham Wade supplies a good note and synopsis, but the copywriters make Baquerizo a tenor rather than the bass-baritone he is, and the presence of vocal cues in English suggests that there wasn't enough booklet space for a parallel translation to accompany the Spanish text. That's a pity. Those after the deepest mining of de Falla's musical riches must track down either of EMI's two versions with de los Angeles, or Mata's sexy account with Marta Senn and Venezualan forces on Dorian DOR-90192; but at under £5 this new La vida breve represents value for money.
© Christopher Webber, 2004