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Manuel de FALLA (1876–1946)
La vida breve (1913)
Victoria de los Angeles (soprano) – Salud; Rosario Gomez (mezzo) – Abuela (Grandmother); Josefina Puigsech (mezzo) – Carmela; Carmen Gombau (soprano) – First Street Vendor; Agustina Turullols (mezzo) – Second Street Vendor; Pilar Tello (soprano) – Third Street Vendor; Pablo Civil (tenor) – Paco; Emilio Paya (baritone) – Uncle Sarvaor (Salvador); José Simorra (baritone) – The Singer; Fernando Cachadiña (baritone) – Manuel; Miguel Pujol (tenor) – A Voice in the Forge and A Voice in the Distance; Amadeo Cartaña (tenor) – Voice of a Hawker
Capilla Clasica Polifonica and Orquesta Sinfonica de la Opera de Barcelona/Ernesto Halffter
rec. Palacio de la Musica, Barcelona, 1954
SOMM SOMMCD 059 [66:27]
 


This recording is historically important. It’s the first complete recording of La vida breve, an opera that has never won a real foothold in the repertoire – at least not outside Spain. The reason for this is at least two-fold: dramatically it is lop-sided: as in the comparatively long first act nothing of importance happens while suddenly everything happens in the much shorter second act and then just as suddenly the drama is over. Also there is a similar lop-sidedness musically, no doubt occasioned by the drama: the first act is principally a 40-minute-long set of impressionistic water-colours asserting the shimmering atmosphere of the siesta. The second act depicts fiesta in a brashly colourful oil-canvas, Goya-like, ending in bleak tragedy.
 
For the young Victoria de los Angeles the opera became the springboard to international recognition and stardom after a BBC Third Programme broadcast in 1948. This led to her being signed up by EMI. The first result of this contract, which was renewed again over a period of more than thirty years, was a record (DB 6702) with Salud’s two arias from La vida breve. This was recorded in the company’s Studio No. 1, Abbey Road, on 14 March 1948 and released the following year. The conductor of the newly formed Philharmonia Orchestra was Stanford Robinson. The record has been reissued on numerous occasions; I have it on EMI CDH 7 64028 2 in the company’s Références series. It was issued in 1991 and is now probably out of print; at least there were no hits when I searched EMI’s web catalogue.
 
The present recording was originally released on two LPs (HMV LP 1050/51) in 1954 and here it comes digitally remastered by Bryan Crimp. It’s a golden opportunity to hear Victoria de los Angeles at the beginning of her career - she had just turned thirty. There is also a direct link to the composer in the presence of Ernesto Halffter - unfortunately misspelt on the front cover - as conductor. Halffter (1905–1989) was a pupil of de Falla’s and a distinguished composer in his own right. It is not necessarily so that a compatriot or a pupil of a composer, not even the composer himself, is the best interpreter of his music but it seems that in this case Halffter catches the authentic atmosphere. It is a pity that the aged mono recording is too primitive to catch the subtle scoring of the music. There is a veil, however thin, between the music and the listener and one has to use one’s imagination to fill in what must have been lost in the process. The more outgoing second act with its lively dances – notably the Danza No. 1 (tr. 17) well-known through Fritz Kreisler’s arrangement for violin and piano – also suffers from the recording quality. The experienced Bryan Crimp has nevertheless done what lies within the power of a human being and we should be eternally grateful for the love and care spent on the remastering.
 
There is a host of peripheral characters inhabiting this drama and it is nice to hear some Spanish singers of this period, showing that de los Angeles was not alone in vocal excellence on the Iberian peninsula. Abuela, the Grandmother, is sung with dramatic conviction and fruity mezzo tone by Rosario Gomez; heard to very best advantage on track 20. Emilio Payá’s Uncle Sarvaor is also well in the picture and another baritone, Fernando Cachadiña is a lively and powerful Manuel. Listen to him, with an incisive chorus filling in comments, on track 16. Pablo Civil as the treacherous Paco, also sports a fine lyric tenor voice of some beauty but it is of course Salud who is at the centre of the action. La vida breve, just as much as, say, Salome or Madama Butterfly, is the heroine’s opera and Victoria de los Angeles is glorious. Her voice is in prime condition, having gained some weight during the six years that elapsed since she recorded the two arias and recording them in connection with the complete drama probably heightens her identification. The second aria (tr. 18) especially catches her singing this dramatic and bitter music with glowing intensity, her tone conveying both anger, sorrow and vulnerability. The final scene is deeply moving, though here there is also some overloading of the microphones.
 
None of my reservations concerning the opera and the sound should deter anyone with an interest from acquiring this disc. One has to make do without a libretto but the cued synopsis is a useful substitute.
 
There have been a few other recordings of La Vida Breve since this pioneering version was made – all of them in better sound. Victoria de los Angeles re-recorded it in excellent stereo sound in the mid-1960s with the Orquesta Nacional de España under Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos. She had by then lost a little of the freshness but in compensation she had deepened her interpretation further and this is probably the best recommendation. That set is currently available in EMI’s “Great Recordings of the Century” in a two-disc version comprising also the ballets El amor brujo and El sombrero de tres picos (7243 5 67587 2 8 - see review). Teresa Berganza also recorded it for DG in the 1970s and just a couple of years ago Naxos released a budget priced version, well worth the small outlay.
 
Göran Forsling
 

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