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Music review: L.A. Philharmonic shines with 'La Vida Breve'

The libretto is overwrought. But put that aside and enjoy the foreign musical elements, which highlight Manuel de Falla's short opera.

November 09, 2012|By Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times Music Critic
  • Spanish conductor Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos conducts the L.A. Phil and the Los Angeles Master Chorale in Manuel de Falla's opera, "La Vida Breve" (The Short Life).
Spanish conductor Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos conducts the L.A. Phil and… (Lawrence K. Ho, Los Angeles…)

The Los Angeles Philharmonic's subscription program Thursday included a Beethoven symphony. Hundreds of orchestras around the world this week can no doubt say the same. At Walt Disney Concert Hall, it was the Eighth conducted in broad strokes by Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos.

But this was, in fact, a Beethoven curveball. The evening (repeating Friday and Saturday) really represented the opening of the L.A. Phil's opera season. The second half of the program was a concert performance (although with the addition of a flamenco dancer) of Manuel de Falla's "La Vida Breve," a short opera about a short life (the Spanish title receives various translations, "Life Is Brief" being one). This is the first of five operas this season being performed or presented by the L.A. Phil (the visiting Philharmonia Orchestra of London brings Berg's "Wozzeck" on Tuesday in a concert performance conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen).

"Vida Breve" is many things. The Spanish composer's first major score, written in 1905 when he was 29, "Vida Breve" is the only traditional opera Falla completed (he would go on to explore the hybrids of opera, ballet and oratorio). It is conceived around a standard verismo theme of a hysterical jealous lover and a cad. Puccini was the model, and Falla's vocal writing can sound derivative. But take out the Puccini and pay as little attention as you can to the clumsy libretto and you have something very interesting.

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The story is that of a Gypsy girl Salud, who has been seduced by and become obsessed with the cosmopolitan Paco. A day after swearing his undying love to her, he marries the well-to-do Carmela. Salud crashes the wedding, pours out rebuke, then guilt-makingly drops dead of disappointment, completely spoiling the party.

Everything that has to do with Salud and Paco is commonplace overwrought nonsense. Everything around these characters is fascinating. As a kind of reverse to Puccini, who would often spice up his Italian style with foreign musical elements (American in "La Fanciulla del West" or Chinese in "Turandot"), Falla offers authentic Spanish flamenco and folk song elements, with the Italian core being the imported substance.

The setting is Granada. The orchestra is for a young composer still trying out a variety of influences (which include Wagner, Liszt, Debussy and Dukas), a vehicle to experiment with atmospheric effects, some of considerable beauty and originality.

The opera opens with women's voices from a forge heard in the background — the Los Angeles Master Chorale had a quite a bit to do and was splendid — and a solo singer (the powerful Gustavo Pena). Vendors come and go. A flamenco singer (Pedro Sanz, eloquent but in need of a microphone) is accompanied by a guitar (Pablo Sáinz-Villegas). This is also where Núria Pomares impressively danced on a cramped square of the stage while playing mean castanets.

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Most of the cast was, like the 79-year-old Frühbeck, from Spain. Falla wrote all three of the solo women's roles for mezzo-soprano, which gives the opera an usually dusky character. As Salud, who gets all the juicy music, Nancy Fabiola Herrera, a robust yet agile mezzo (she starred in a Los Angeles Opera "Carmen" four years ago), dominated the performance. Next to her, tenor Vicente Ombuena's Paco was slightly underpowered, but it's an uninspired part.

Cristina Faus, Salud's grandmother, sang movingly of a dying bird in a cage. Alfredo Garcia was a likably pugnacious Tio Sarvaor, the cranky gypsy who wants to give Paco his just rewards. Daniela Mack (Carmela) and Josep Miquel Ramón (Manuel, Paco's friend) had insignificantly small parts.

Nothing can be done about the ruinous faux-Puccinian ending of the opera, but "Vide Breve" is clearly close to Frühbeck's heart. And he wonderfully put the L.A. Phil front and center.

Falla called for a large orchestra, including two harps, celesta and an impressively varied percussion section. And instrumental colors splashed and created a spell.

That's the glory of "Vida Breve," which fascinatingly reveals the path that Falla would follow as he forged a vital new Spanish music for the 20th century. For that reason the opera continues to have a longer life than it perhaps deserves. But the L.A. Phil's way is the way to hear it.

mark.swed@latimes.com

Los Angeles Philharmonic, Walt Disney Concert Hall, downtown L.A., 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Tickets, $23.75 to $189. (323) 850-2000 or laphil.org

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