Manuel de Falla’s La vida breve is a fascinating work, for whilst its origins lie in the Italian verismo operatic tradition, there is much authentic, rather than impressionistic, Iberian colour and vitality.
This Chandos recording really gains in having been captured in an extraordinarily clear, spacious but not over-resonant acoustic. This allows much of the brilliance of the orchestration to register as never before. Juanjo Mena and the BBC Philharmonic have worked hard to get these aspects dynamically balanced and engineer Stephen Rinker captures the spatial effects of distant voices and wordless choruses brilliantly. And it’s super to have a truly idiomatic flamenco singer, Segundo Falcón, whose important interjections amidst the street celebrations of Paco’s wedding open the second Act; all the earthiness and amazing resonance of this distinctive voice rings true.
Of the more conventional singers there are some strong interpreters. Nancy Fabiola Herrera has the vivid range of colours needed that allow her to convince as both the idealistic and then emotionally crushed Salud; she catches the desolation and desperation of her final utterances magnificently. Cristina Faus’s fruity mezzo is heard to advantage as her (admittedly rather youthful-sounding) concerned grandmother and, finally, there’s the mellifluous baritone of Gustavo Peña. If Aquiles Machado’s tenor falls less easily on the ear, owing to its slight beat and a slightly raucous delivery, he is certainly characterful as the emotionally dishonest Paco. The chorus is an excitable presence.
Mena’s tempos are expansive but certainly not languid, and the drama has inexorable direction. The dances of the second Act have a brash exuberance and abandon, and Mena deftly handles the swings of mood and compositional style.
The set is beautifully presented, with a full libretto and an interesting essay by the conductor that acknowledges Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos for both his mentorship and his advocacy for this opera. Frühbeck’s recording remains the classic but Mena’s is a persuasive reading that complements it and some other previous favourites rather than replacing them.