In 1905, during his final year of studies, a brilliant student of composition at the Madrid Royal Conservatory wins first place in a competition to create a new one-act Spanish opera. The prize of 2500 pesetas includes a commitment from the Teatro Real to produce the work. The modest cash sum is awarded after months of foot-dragging but the latter part of the agreement, the pledge to bring the expressive musical slice of life to Madrid’s historic mainstage, would not be upheld in the musician’s lifetime. Unnerved by the sympathetic portrayal of an abused gitana, a centuries-old underclass of Roma outsiders, authorities deliberately suppress the piece for decades. Discouraged and depressed, its author decamps for France where his flair for distilling modern twentieth century Spanish experience eventually finds a receptive liberal audience. Finally, eight years after it is created, a revised two-act version of La Vida Breve (Life is Short) is performed at the Municipal Casino in Nice. Composer Manuel de Falla moves back to Madrid, ultimately settling in Granada, spiritual heart of his native Andalusia. The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, the murder of his intimate friend, the poet Federico García Lorca, by a Nationalist killing squad, his self-imposed exile to Argentina where he will die never having revisited his homeland, all lie ahead.
With an impassioned performance of de Falla’s searing indictment of discrimination and human indifference, Voicebox: Opera in Concert unleashed its 2014/15 season on a rapt capacity audience at Toronto’s St. Lawrence Centre studio theatre. Semi-staged opera rarely cuts closer to the emotional bone.
An enthusiastic fan of zarzuela, a wildly popular form of stagey Spanish operetta, de Falla, composer and patriot, was equally attracted to the indigenous narrative of his cherished Andalusia. Fiery Roma folk songs and blazing flamenco figure prominently in his singularly identifiable work. Opera in Concert’s severe, brutally honest, moving La Vida Breve threw strong clear light on de Falla’s resonant chronicle.
Poet-playwright-librettist Carlos Fernández-Shaw’s story is laced with dark, jittery undertones.
In the working class quarter of Granada, beyond the courtyard of a humble house, blacksmiths toil at their forge. While hammers and anvils ring, a simple young gypsy, Salud, anxiously awaits a visit from her lover, Paco, a prosperous man-about-town who has promised to marry her. Salud’s grandmother foresees nothing but unhappiness for her fretful charge as street vendors stroll past hawking their wares. Salud fears Paco will not come but instantly brightens when he finally appears. Paco pledges his devotion. The couple exits, rejoicing in their love. Suddenly, Salud’s Uncle Tio bursts onto the scene, bristling with rage at his discovery that Paco is soon to be wed to a young woman more suited to his social status. The grandmother restrains Tio from killing him. Tension crackles in the air.
The next day. Festivities are in progress on the patio of a fashionable villa. Paco and Carmela, his new bride, are celebrating with family and friends. Alone on the street, Salud spies the happy couple embracing. The bitter truth is plain to see. Salud prays for death. Her uncle and grandmother, vigilant and apprehensive, arrive to console her. Tio curses the gathering. Salud despairs, the sound of her voice catching Paco off guard. Tio leads Salud into the courtyard to confront the deceitful bridegroom. Salud bitterly denounces him. Carmela and guests look on in stunned disbelief. Paco denies ever knowing her. Salud collapses at her lover’s feet, dead from a broken heart.
The romantic notes at play here are extravagant, a lingering echo of nineteenth century Italian grand opera formulas, perhaps not surprising in a work born so close to the cusp of artistic change. If La Vida Breve was an experiment, a prototype for a new form of authentic Spanish musical theatre, its appeal, one hundred years after its creation, lies more in its meticulous compositional values than any radical dramaturgy.
While in France, de Falla met virtually all the brightest Parisian musical luminaries of the day. Three of them became friends and mentors. Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel and Paul Dukas jointly had pioneered a new form of sound painting. Their stylish work struck a profound chord with de Falla, prompting him to add an entirely new layer of texture to his work. Impressionism combined with Spanish folk music, both traditional and re-imagined, gave de Falla’s voice an entirely original depth and resonance.
On a drizzly, grey Sunday afternoon, stripped of orchestra, spotlighted on a bare stage, La Vida Breve spoke loud and clear.
Opera in Concert music director and pianist José Hernández infused de Falla’s superbly evocative score with all the hard sunlight and sharp shadow of Granada, playing with great expansiveness. Leading us deep into the gitano quarter of Albaicin, Hernández blazed the way, opening with a self-composed tribute to de Falla. The dazzling series of skipping improvisations based on flamenco themes were as stormy as they were bittersweet. With his quick, sure touch and crispness of tone, Hernández set a crackling pace, journeying far beyond a basic elemental concert approach. The La Vida Breve that followed thrilled.
Giving the minimalist production an undeniable loft, world soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian sang a Salud of immense grace and raw vitality. Dressed in a dramatic mantilla-inspired black gown handcrafted by specialist designer Rosemarie Umetsu, Bayrakdarian conjured a character of enormous strength and dignity, pulsing with defiance, caring, vulnerable. Her voice, clear and unwavering shading to hints of mezzo, glowed with warmth, velvety and complex in mid to lower ranges, its top sparkling. Flexible and agile as ever, Bayrakdarian’s command of melisma astonished. Her performance of de Falla’s Act I classic Vivan los que rien! (“Long live those who laugh!”) was quite simply heartbreaking, a universe of hurt and anguish.
Tenor Ernesto Ramírez was a perfectly slippery, silver-tongued Paco, his bright, shiny signature sound charming and beguiling as ever. That he somehow managed to win our sympathy with a convincing show of repentance played in total silence is nothing less than the kind of compelling craftsmanship we have come to expect from this fine singer actor.
Mezzo Sarah Hicks appeared as a fearful Grandmother. Baritone Marco Petracchi seethed as Uncle Tio.
Vibrant flamenco artist Esmeralda Enrique electrified in a pair of stunning dance scenes. Opera in Concert Artistic Director Guillermo Silva-Marin, in a featured cameo role as La Vida Breve’s street-singing Cantaor, voiced the opera’s famous Soleares to ringing effect, turning in a snappy mini-flamenco number of his own.
The Opera in Concert Chorus directed by Robert Cooper heard both offstage and on as townsfolk and wedding guests provided rich atmosphere.
Comprimari artists Keenan Viau and Michelle Veenhuizen appeared as Vendors. Dina Shikhman was Carmela. Domenico Sanfilippo was Paco’s ally, Manuel.
La Vida Breve is a challenging opera to program. Lasting only slightly more than sixty minutes, de Falla’s spare, musically lavish tragedy is constructed almost entirely around a single towering central role with limited action to propel it. It takes no small amount of courage on the part of a producer to bring the composer’s early masterpiece to the stage. Little wonder it is so infrequently presented. Viva Opera in Concert! Viva Isabel Bayrakdarian! This La Vida Breve will long be remembered.