De Falla: Briefer than Magical

SpainSpain M. de Falla, El Amor Brujo & La Vida Breve: Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus Teatro de la Zarzuela, Juanjo Mena (conductor), Teatro de la Zarzuela, Madrid, 5.10.2012 (JMI)

Production: Théâtre de la Monnaie and Theater Basel.

Direction: Herbert Wernicke (original), Wendelin Lang (revival)
Sets & Costumes: Herbert Wernicke
Lighting: Hermann Münzer
Choreography: Natalia Ferrándiz


Salud: Lola Casariego
Paco: Andrés Veramendi
Grandma: Milagros Martín
Uncle Sarvaor: Enrique Baquerizo
Voice of the Forge: Gustavo Peña
Manuel: Josep-Miquel Ramón
Carmela: Ruth Iniesta
Flamenco Singer: José Ángel Carmona

The Teatro de la Zarzuela starts into its first season under the direction of Paolo Pinamonti. For this inaugural event, the theatre has decided on a double bill of El Amor Brujo and La Vida Breve by Manuel de Falla, both in Herbert Wernicke’s 1995 production. That’s no surprise, as Mr. Pinamonti is well-known for his admiration of Wernicke’s work (as well as those by Graham Vick).

I’m not sure that was a terribly good idea, though… especially as regards El Amor Brujo (Love, the Magician). As a gitanería (gypsy piece) as Falla called it, it’s a good complement to an opera. But Wernicke offered but a series of Spanish clichés that may make sense abroad, but are boring and corny from a Spanish perspective. The cantaora and the flamenco dancer are essential to the work, but the rest of the characters Wernicke hoists upon stage are mere formulaic chestnuts, from the bullfighter and his burial to the Nazarenes in the Andalusian processions.

available at Amazon
M. de Falla, El Amor Brujo ,
J.Pons / Orquestra de Cambra Teatre Lliure
Harmonia Mundi

available at Amazon
M. de Falla, La Vida Breve,
J.Pons / Orquesta Ciudad de Granada et al.
Harmonia Mundi

The show improves with La Vida Breve (The Brief Life), although the production is less interesting than Giancarlo del Monaco’s from a couple of years ago in Valencia. Herbert Wernicke is responsible for sets and costumes—the former a minimalist, round, and inclined platform. Chairs are the only props for the wedding of Carmela and Paco; chorus and the forge are somewhere off stage. Blocking and personality development isn’t particularly exciting either. The best thing is the choreography, and even that’s not exceptional. Tacking Falla’s famous lullaby (“Nana”) at the end of the opera, which the cantaora sings to Salud’s corpse, may be attractive, but also unnecessarily anti-climactic.

It’s rare to have outstanding conductors at the Teatro de la Zarzuela and therefore the presence of Juanjo Mena on the podium was a real novelty, raising high expectations. He offered the original 1915 chamber orchestration of El Amor Brujo for just 14 musicians, in which the work gains in transparency, but understandably loses orchestral brilliance. Juanjo Mena’s reading of La Vida Breve met the high expectations of this excellent conductor and was, as it were, full of life—in fact, easily the best aspect of the whole performance. Orchestra and chorus performed well above their average.

Mezzo soprano Lola Casariego’ Salud was serviceable, but not particularly convincing. You don’t have to leave Spain to hear better alternatives. The other characters are all secondary, even Paco, played here by Peruvian tenor Andrés Veramendi, a modest performer who showed a wide vocal range marred by excessive vibrato. Milagros Martin was a reasonably convincing Grandma, a little on the young side which made her look more like Salud’s elder sister. Enrique Baquerizo was excellent as Tio Sarvaor; Gustavo Peña was quite good as the Voice of the Forge. Cantaora Esperanza Fernández, the real interpreter of El Amor Brujo, sang the final Falla’s Nana with much feeling

Usually it’s hard to get tickets for zarzuela shows in Madrid, but on this occasion the theater was just three quarters full. Either the financial crisis is affecting zarzuela now, or de Falla is not the preferred choice among the traditional customers of this house. The audience was courteous except for isolated booing for Andres Veramendi.

José MªIrurzun