Where can one hear a great Spanish opera? It's a question frequently asked, but one that has no easy answer. Opera was born in Italy around 1600, soon conquered France and Germany, and eventually established itself as a creative force throughout Europe. During that time Spain was cultivating its long and rich tradition of zarzuela, but that exhilarating genre of folkloric musical theater, with its infusion of popular song and dance, has always been something of a local delicacy that generally resists export.
While most zarzuelas include spoken dialogue as well as sung scenes, the distinguished exponent of Spanish music Rafael Fr‹hbeck de Burgos points to Manuel de Falla's La vida breve as a true opera, a major contribution to the form, but even that eloquent depiction of the Spanish alma is seldom staged. Mr. Fr‹hbeck de Burgos's enthusiasm for this two-act lyric drama has been life-long, and his 1966 recording with the great, much missed Spanish soprano Victoria de los Angeles in the central role of Salud did much to bring attention to the score some 40 years ago. Even at that, the opera is more often than not performed in concert, as the New York Philharmonic does this month, October 16 _21.
"Part of the problem," the conductor feels, "is the libretto. Carlos Fernšndez Shaw was a wonderful poet, but he was primarily a writer of zarzuela texts and his libretto for La vida breve is still very much in that tradition. In fact, I like to think of the opera as a very refined zarzuela, although through- composed and without spoken dialogue. Falla's music elevates the whole poetic drama to a much higher technical and sophisticated level than most zarzuelas, definitely more than the words might suggest. We are hearing music here that is every bit the equal of Ravel and Debussy."
That's certainly true, and interestingly both those French composers were also sparing in their production of operas: Debussy wrote one, Pell_as et M_lisande; Ravel, only two one-act works, L'Heure espagnole and L'Enfant et les sortilges. It's also perhaps significant that Falla's opera was initially performed in France, first at the Municipal Theatre at Nice in 1913, and soon after at Paris's Op_ra-Comique where the piece had a rapturous reception. La vida breve seemed to suit the French taste in opera at the time, which was very cosmopolitan and open to influences from a wide variety of musical cultures. Spanish audiences may have at first found Falla's "super zarzuela" difficult to categorize, but the French adored its heated scenes of love and violence, the colorful Spanish dances, and the magical sounds of Granada by night.
I once spoke to Victoria de los Angeles about the role of Salud, which she loved to sing : she actually recorded the opera twice, first in 1953 with Ernesto Halffter conducting, and again 13 years later with Mr. Fr‹hbeck de Burgos. She told me that the character worked best for her as an abstraction rather than as a three-dimensional operatic heroine like MimÐ, Violetta, or Manon, roles that she frequently portrayed onstage. "When Salud has a joy, it is a very great joy; when she has a sorrow, it is a very great sorrow," she said. "Because of that she cannot live in a world of half measures and compromise, let alone betrayal. For me, Salud embodies the essence of the Spanish soul in its simplest, purest form."
Not surprisingly, Rafael Fr‹hbeck de Burgos prefers to perform this opera, so drenched in Spain's sights and sounds, with an all-Spanish cast, as he does here this month. Of course, Salud and the other solo singers must be attuned to the natural shape and accent of the vocal lines, but they are only one ingredient in Falla's panoramic sound canvas, one that bursts into the brightest colors during the fateful wedding festivities that open Act II. The raw, rasping melismas of an Andalusian song offered as a toast to the bride and groom, the flashing guitar accompaniments, and the stamping rhythms of the dancers all seem just that much more thrilling when realized by native musicians with the idiom in their blood, as does the conductor of the Philharmonic's performance, who was is true of Rafael Fr‹hbeck and later added "de Burgos" to his surname to reflect his Spanish nationality.
Since La vida breve is a short work, Mr. Fr‹hbeck de Burgos opens the program with five movements from Alb_niz's Suite espaê±ola, originally written for piano and performed in the conductor's own orchestral transcription. Each piece is not necessarily a musical description of the city contained in its title, but rather attempts to typify the sort of music that was born and heard in that region of Spain. As such, the Suite makes a perfect introduction to the opera, setting the stage to lead us to Falla's own inimitable homage to his country, an intrinsically Spanish opera that can justifiably be called a masterpiece.
Peter G. Davis writes about classical music for The New York Times, Musical America On-Line, Opera News, and other publications. He is the author of The American Opera Singer, from 1825 to the Present.