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Manuel de FALLA (1876-1946)
La vida breve (1905) - Lyric Drama in two acts and four tableaux
Libretto by Carlos Fernández Shaw
Salud, Ana Maria Sánchez (soprano)
Paco, Vincente Ombuena Valls (tenor),
La Abuela, Alicia Nafé (mezzo-soprano)
El Tio Sarvaor, Alfonso Echeverria (bass),
Manuel, Enrique Baquerizo (tenor)
Carmela, Maria José Suárez (soprano)
La Voz de la Fragua, Manuel Cid (tenor)
Cantaor, Pedro Sanz (tenor)
Prince of Asturias Foundation Choir
Asturias Symphony Orchestra/Maximiano Valdés
Recorded Oviedo, Spain, 2002
NAXOS 8.660155 [63:31]


I have delayed writing this review for some time because, never having seen the opera, I was hoping to catch up with a rare UK production being toured by England’s Opera North. Unfortunately I had to cancel twice owing to a persistent cough. If only some of my fellow concert-goers were as sensitive. The result is that I missed the boat, something made particularly irritating because the performance had some rave reviews. This is how Anthony Holden in the Guardian started his review:

"If you’d rather be boiled in oil than go to the opera, as one friend of mine confided to another, here’s a show that might change your mind: Opera North’s production of La Vida Breve ….. The music is flamenco-fiery, the staging vivid enough to give opera a non-elitist name, and – here’s the best news – it’s only an hour long."

There are virtues in brevity other than that of satisfying short attention spans and opera-phobics. In the theatre it will nearly always be done as a double bill so you get a good money’s worth, and in CD terms we get an opera on one disc - in this case at Naxos budget price. Those who saw the production will wonder why this powerful work is performed so relatively rarely outside Spain. And those who only know their Falla through the popular orchestral music from Nights in the Gardens of Spain and The Three-Cornered Hat will be surprised at the opera’s musical contrast and gritty drama.

The plot starts the same as that of the last opera I reviewed, Pacius’s Die Loreley: caddish male seduces maiden and vows eternal love but, unknown to her, he is due to get married the next day. Maiden happens to go to wedding where she realises who is getting married. Then plot diverges. In Die Loreley, man gets just desserts and drowns in Rhine. In La Vida, the grief-stricken girl dies.

I am not sure which version is more politically correct, but I fear, life being what it is, that La Vida Breve is more convincing in its outcome, and certainly more painful for the audience.

This Naxos CD is a very welcome addition to the few recordings that have been made. Among those still available is the one headed by Victoria de los Angeles. This was made in 1966 but is still regarded by many as the benchmark. Naxos however can compete with superior recorded sound and an idiomatic Spanishness ensured by the fact that all forces – vocal and orchestral, are indigenous; I stretch a point – a couple of participants are South-American born. The singers twiddle Falla’s characteristic Iberian embellishments in a way that must be in the blood. Ana Maria Sánchez carries off the responsibility of the lead with some aplomb. This is a wide-ranging role, both dramatically and in terms of pitch, and she has the voice to cope. All the other cast acquit themselves well, and in the important role of the grandmother, Alicia Nafé brings a unique experience to the role. The North Spanish provincial band, the Asturian Symphony Orchestra, is excellent under Maximiamo Valdes, a stalwart of the Spanish orchestral scene.

So if you want to purchase your only CD of this opera, is this the one, bearing in mind the bargain price? Well, if like me you are English speaking with hopeless Spanish, then I suggest the answer may be ‘no’. Why? Because there is no English libretto supplied. I have friends who say this does not matter too much if you have the synopsis. A: I do not agree, and B: in this case, the synopsis is buried in the middle of a general article about the opera. The whole of the first act is covered in about a hundred words. If you want to know exactly what the girl, Salud, and her seducer Paco are saying to each other in their moving duet towards the end, then you wouldn’t have a clue. It is a disgrace that a disc that is targeting a large English–speaking market should only provide a Spanish text. The only use it could serve is that if you follow it you could work out which of the characters are singing at any given moment (but not what they are singing about).

If you agree with me then I recommend the classic Victoria de los Angeles EMI recording, superbly conducted by Frühbeck de Burgos. It has an English text so you’ll know what’s happening. You may only pay a tiny bit more. The fine version made by DG under Garcìa Navarro with Teresa Berganza and a young Jose Carreras, is, I understand, not currently available.

John Leeman

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