Full stagings of La Vida Breve by Manuel de Falla (1876-1946) are rare enough. It is a credit to the strength of the faculties of the School of Music and Theatre at the University of North Carolina/Greensboro that their production of the seminal Spanish opera was so successful. The intimate Taylor Theatre was a sell out and the audience saw a resourceful portrayal of de Falla's unique welding of impressionism and verismo.
Two musical competitions sponsored by the Royal Academy of Fine Arts were announced in Madrid in 1904, one for composition (including one-act operas), the other for pianists. The first competition appeared to ensure public performance of the winning work in a Madrid theater. De Falla won both contests but his opera score gathered dust unperformed. He went to Paris, and legend has it on a ticket for seven days but he stayed seven years. He became closely acquainted with Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, and Paul Dukas. Dukas was very impressed with La Vida Breve and was instrumental in securing the premiere of the revised two-act version in Nice, sung in French, in April 1, 1913. This was followed by a production at the Opéra Comique in Paris. A subsequent staging in Spain established de Falla as Spain's preeminent composer.
Like Dukas, de Falla is known for a markedly small number of works. Dukas was even more self-critical than Brahms. De Falla's some twenty compositions result, in part, from a lifetime of ill health from tuberculosis. The composer was drawn to music when he heard Haydn's oratorio, The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross. The contradiction and mystery of de Falla is as an austere, priest-like composer who eschewed masses, while writing some music smoldering with eroticism. He called such works as El Amor Brujo, El Sombrero de Tres Picos, and La Vida Breve his "sins" and wanted performances of them suppressed after his death. Fate had better sense!
In La Vida Breve, the poor gypsy girl Salud has been seduced and is eventually abandoned by her upper class lover Paco. Her grandmother, La Abuela, worries over Salud’s unhealthy obsession with Paco while her uncle Sarvaor has found out the cad’s plan to marry a woman of his own class. In the second act, the gypsies crash the wedding party. Salud threatens Paco but eventually stabs herself. de Falla packs this act with folk elements such as the Andalusian song of the wedding singer and the insistent rhythms of the flamenco dance.
La Vida Breve is a challenging work to stage, having sections of either atmospheric orchestral music or richly suggestive off-stage choral episodes. Producer/Stage Director David Holley made imaginative use of character-revealing pantomime to carry the drama forward. Jennifer Baker's stage design made good use of unit sets and sections that could be quickly whisked into the loft. Act I was the poor gypsy quarter of Salud and her family, while Act II was the wealthier quarters of her heartless lover Paco and his circle. Back-lit scrims on either side of the stage suggested the smithy or the street outside the wedding party. The metaphor of being the anvil, not the hammer, runs throughout the opera. Kasendra Bell's lighting designs helped focus the drama. Choreographer Lica Perea blended the long, flowing movements of ballet with the rapid, percussive elements of Spanish folk dance. Her six dancers were very able. Singing is Spanish is hard enough. Assistant Conductor Andrés Milá-Prats did a fine job of coaching the cast in the two dialects in which the opera is sung. The superb chorus was well prepared by Justin Hazelgrove.
The costumes, designed by Matthew Emerson, were evocative of the region and period. Conductor Robert Gutter kept the onstage action and pit orchestra in tight ensemble and balance. Strings played as one, producing a warm sound, matched by the fine woodwinds. The brass sections were rambunctious when called for and the important percussion section was rhythmically precise.
The intimate hall helped prevent any evidence of strain from the very good cast of soloists. Mezzo-soprano Melita Etienne brought little comic touches as well as a tragic poignancy to the role of La Abuela, the Grandmother. Her robust voice easily filled the hall and her sustained high notes were impressive. Dora Logan Hastings was a smoldering, sensual Salud. Her slim figure and striking face vividly embodied the raven-haired and tragic gypsy. Her tightly focused soprano was balanced across its range and it carried a subtle emotional edge. Bass Neal Stratford Sharpe brought out the barely contained outrage of El Tio Sarvaor, Salud's uncle. His voice was very expressive and robust. Tenor Andrew Owens, as Salud's deceitful lover Paco, sang with a warm tone and a finely balanced voice. Boos he received at the end were a compliment for his successful embodiment of the rogue. Soprano Denise Crawfort did well as Paco's wealthy bride, a role calling more for subtle acting than singing.
Briefer or smaller roles are none-the-less important in this ethnic-themed opera. The diction and timbre of baritone Conor Angell as El Cantaor, the wedding singer, was breathtaking. His wonderfully characterized performance was ably supported by guitarist Lucas Ray. One of the more memorable arias of the opera is "Feliz me siento," sung by Carmela's brother Manuel. Baritone David Blalock sang this with a burnished tone and apt sense of emotion and style. The evocative forge scene benefitted from the able singing of Marshall Rollings and Patrick J. Darab. Darab doubled as a street vendor. Hannah Lloyd, Deliala Yasin, and Whitney Myers portrayed the other colorful sellers.