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Manuel de FALLA (1876-1946)
La Vida Breve
Salud - Nancy Fabiola Herrera (mezzo-soprano)
La Abuela - Cristina Faus (mezzo-soprano)
Paco - Aquiles Machado (tenor)
Tío Sarvaor - José Antonio López (baritone)
Carmela, the bride - Raquel Lojendio (soprano)
Manuel, the bride’s brother - Josep Miquel Ramón (baritone)
El Cantaor - Segundo Falcón (flamenco)
Una voz en la fragua - Gustavo Peña (tenor)
RTVE Symphony Chorus
BBC Philharmonic/Juanjo Mena
rec. 2018, Media City UK, Salford, UK
CHANDOS CHAN20032 [62:08]

This studio recording came off the back of some concert performances that marked Juanjo Mena’s farewell to the BBC Philharmonic as their Chief Conductor. He has finished with a work that’s close to his heart, as he writes at length in the CD’s booklet notes. La Vida Breve is the most famous opera written by a Spaniard, and Mena writes quite movingly about how important it is to him and the lengths that he went to in making this recording. It’s a labour of love, and that shows in the love with which he shapes every paragraph.

Chandos and the BBC went to great lengths, too, shipping to Manchester not only an all-Spanish cast of soloists but even the whole RTVE Symphony Chorus, the oldest professional chorus in Spain. That was a shrewd move, because it makes the disc a little more competitive than it would otherwise have been. This is one of those “national operas” where it would be pretty hard to imagine it done by a non-Spanish cast. It’s hard enough to imagine it played by a British orchestra.

In the event, though, the orchestra are, perhaps, the finest thing about this performance, surprisingly so. Mena’s enthusiasm for the work must have rubbed off on them, because they are instrumental in creating the work’s all-important atmosphere. Those dark, sinuous strings of the opening are hair-raisingly good, as are the sparkling Act 2 dances and the bright winds of the Intermezzo. The Chandos recording helps, too: I loved the brooding soundscape of the opening scene with the offstage voices and the clanging of the forge. It works extremely well, and comes to life brilliantly in the stereo picture: who needs SACD?!

The singers are all very good, too. That chorus were worth the air fare, because they enliven everything they do. They are careworn and downtrodden as the workers in the opening scene, but then they set the scene alight in the wedding, stamping their feet and Olé!-ing convincingly.

The soloists are very good, too. Nancy Fabiola Herrera is sympathetic if a trifle disengaged as Salud, the gypsy who is cast aside by her lover. That lothario lover is sung with ardour by Aquiles Machado, and the baritone richness of José Antonio López is a welcome contrast as the avenging uncle. Raquel Lojendio is a bit of a cypher as the bride, and Cristina Faus doesn’t sound remotely aged as the grandmother, but Segundo Falcón deserves a special mention as the flamenco singer, engulfing the scene with the smoke from his wonderful voice.

So they’re all very good in their own right; but I can’t recommend this as a first choice Vida Breve. The competition for this opera has soloists that are even better and even more engaged. Nobody who has heard Victoria de los Angeles singing Salud for Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos can forget the indelible poignancy of her interpretation, and Teresa Berganza for García Navarro brings a different sort of intensity that’s very compelling.

Still, as a testament to Mena’s work in Manchester, this disc is worthwhile, particularly as proof that a British orchestra can play Spanish music like the best of them.

Simon Thompson



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