La vida breve

Music:
Manuel
de Falla

Libretto:
Carlos
Fernández Shaw


Opera North

Salud (Mary Plazas) sacrificed at Opera North. Photograph by Stephen Vaughan


Christopher Webber and Ignacio Jassa Haro (Español) on Opera North's radical new staging ...

I. Grand Theatre, Leeds
April 13th 2004


In staging a piece as unfamiliar as La vida breve, what is the production team's prime responsibility? Should they play a straight bat, sticking as closely as possible to what the creators wrote? Would that be doomed heroism for an opera so far removed from modern theatrical pacing and taste? Should they instead recast the work so radically as to effectively replace it? How fair is this to an audience largely unfamiliar with the original?

Nowadays we are inured to the howls of protest which used to greet Director's Theatre; and though that battle has been fought and lost, we may still be perplexed by a paradox. As musical preparation has become progressively purist, striving to approach ever closer the composer's ideal text, so stagings have become increasingly divorced from the writer's verbal and visual instructions. The resultant dislocation of sound and image is stimulating, sophisticated, and a sure symptom of a musical-theatrical tradition in at least temporary decline. It's what happens when old rather than new stuff becomes the centre of attraction. The museum is closed to new exhibits; so all we can do is put fancy new clothes on the old faves, fiddling while Rome burns.

So it is that the Auteur-director has become the bogeyman of opera, the (wo)man we love to hate. Which brings us to Christopher Alden, certainly much more the auteur of Opera North's La vida breve than Carlos Fernández Shaw. The writer did not set his libretto in a corrugated iron sweat shop, where the downtrodden women workers sew bridal gowns under hard fluorescent light, overseen by men in brown coats (de Falla's offstage chorus of blacksmiths) who when they aren't brutalising the workers stand around drinking mugs of tea. Nor presumably did he envisage the offstage tenor whose words articulate so much of the pain of the piece should be embodied as a muscular transvestite, whose fate as Heroine's Best Girlfriend is to have the shit kicked out of him by the brown coats. This happens during de Falla's sinuous transition to the final scene, whilst the heroine herself - spurned gypsy girl Salud - commits a gory ritual suicide. Earlier we have seen her engage in coitus interruptus with her feckless Paco, who soon after is caught snogging his brother-in-law on a table as they snort cocaine during the surging Spanish Dance de Falla provided for the wedding festivities. No dancing here, no costumbrista local colour, no picture-postcard Granadine exotics.

So far, you might think, so bad. Not so! The Spanish-Wagnerian, sacrificial spirit of the original is beautifully captured in slow, dignified, ritual movement, its intensity hardly ruffled even by the wild dance or choral interludes. The characters and scenario are more or less recognisably Fernández Shaw's, although Salud's Grandmother (Susan Gorton) becomes the hapless supervisor of the sweat shop. The gypsy element has vanished completely, but the sense of oppressed (makers) and oppressors (money) has not. The Flamenco singer (Adrian Clarke) becomes a tuxedoed, microphone-wielding host-show zombie, stalking the joint throughout, clearly identified with the dark themes of duende and death. This too seems right. The concentration of the whole staging is horribly compelling.

Salud (Mary Plazas) mutually comforts the transvestite worker (Richard Coxon). Photograph by Stephen Vaughan.

A side benefit of the glazed, eyes-front demeanour of principals and chorus is that it gives the musical team a chance to shine, an opportunity well grasped. The wild sweep of de Falla's choral and orchestral writing is well caught by conductor Martin André and the Opera North Orchestra. The chorus itself is on the small side to get across the full visceral impact of the wordless cries in the Intermedio, but sings with stylish precision. The principals are uniformly strong; the young Italian-American tenor Leonardo Capalbo makes a winning and credible lather-jacketed antihero, and Mary Plazas' slim, vulnerable Salud is most affectingly sung and acted. For her, this production is a personal triumph. If Richard Coxon's transvestite "worker" pulls focus at times, that's no fault of his - this, I feel, is the only notable miscalculation in Alden's otherwise gripping and breathtaking production.

Why is it sung in Spanish? With the exception of Plazas none of the principals seems remotely at home with the Andalusian dialect. Some of it doesn't sound like any language known to man. I suppose, like singing Oedipus Rex in Latin, all this has the effect of monumentalising the tragic action - though a little devil on my shoulder prompts me to say the main benefit's that the audience will be much less likely to cotton on to the fact that what the principals do has scant reference to what they say. When Zemlinsky's glorious short opera The Dwarf, which preceded the de Falla, worked so well in English, why not trust the vernacular here too?

De Falla's reliance on offstage atmospherics a la Cavalleria Rusticana and the stasis of what action there is reveal his theatrical inexperience, and make La vida breve a very hard act to pull off in the theatre. By embracing its longeurs rather than disguising them, Alden's radical revision makes for a memorably focussed theatrical event without throwing out the musical baby with the bathwater. This, I submit to the diehards, is what contemporary opera production ought be about.

© Christopher Webber 2004


II. 26 de junio de 2004, 21 horas
Sadler’s Wells Theatre, Londres


Me pide Christopher Webber una addenda a sus lúcidas palabras.

¿Cómo expresar la inmensa satisfacción y el enorme impacto producidos por un espectáculo como el que la compañía británica Opera North presentó en Londres? ¡Qué envidiable desinhibición la que muestra el director de escena Christopher Alden al enfrentarse a una obra como ésta tan fácil de hacer caer en el tópico!

Me cuesta trabajo imaginar cómo sería aceptada una producción de estas características en España. De seguro correrían ríos de tinta si es que no rodaban cabezas. Obviamente el autor musical y su obra han alcanzado respectivamente en su país de origen una reverencia cuasi religiosa y una cualidad de clásico que hacen arriesgado cuando no irreverente salirse de la ortodoxia. Porque una cosa es hacer Don Giovanni o la tetralogía a años luz de lo convencional y otra muy distinta es meterse con el repertorio patrio, ese que llega tan hondo.

Pero...¡qué intermedio y qué danzas! ¡Menudo mérito tiene conseguir tal dramatismo con tan mínima gestualidad! Todos los allí presentes nos sentíamos irremisiblemente tentados a marcar con nuestros cuerpos los compases bailables pero topábamos con la tozuda realidad de una cegadora escena congelada y ajena a la música. El contraste resultaba inquietante si no emocionante.

Un lunar de esta producción es el tratamiento vocal de la parte del cantaor flamenco. Aunque se renuncie a la técnica autóctona, algo comprensible tanto por su dificultad como por sus connotaciones, es sin embargo un error la impostación de la voz. Tanto el cantaor flamenco del original como el cantante de boda a lo Elvis de esta versión deben tener un registro sonoro distinto al de los protagonistas de la ópera pues los primeros son cantantes en una historia donde el resto de personajes en teoría sólo hablan.

Mención especial merecen los problemas de dicción a los que también alude Christopher Webber en su crítica al espectáculo. El hecho de que la obra esté escrita en andaluz (variedad dialectal del español) hace de ella un caballo de batalla para cualquier cantante hispano que no proceda de Andalucía; no es de extrañar pues que para cantantes ajenos al mundo hispano sea especialmente complejo pronunciar de manera comprensible el libreto de Carlos Fernández Shaw. Comparto completamente la idea de que haberlo traducido habría ayudado al público al disfrute de la obra.

La brillantez de la aproximación de Opera North a la obra de Falla y Fernández Shaw nos hace redescubrir una gran partitura y ser conscientes de las limitaciones del libreto. Pero sobre todo nos admira por ser capaz de sacar a la superficie las potencialidades ocultas del drama.

© Ignacio Jassa Haro 2004


Cast (both performances): Worker - Richard Coxon; Grandmother - Susan Gorton; Salud - Mary Plazas; Paco - Leonardo Capalbo; Uncle Sarvaor - Graeme Broadbent; Carmela - Kim-Marie Woodhouse; Flamenco Singer - Adrian Clarke; Manuel - Mark Stone; Workers - Miranda Bevin, Rachel Mosley, Cordelia Fish, Harold Sharples

Opera North Chorus and Orchestra; Conductor - Martin André; Director - Christopher Alden; Set Designer - Johan Engels; Costume Designer - Sue Willmington; Lighting Designer - Adam Silverman; Choreographer/Movement Director - Claire Glaskin


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