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Iberian Energies

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Centre
10/16/2008 -  & October 17, 18, 21, 2008
Isaac Albéniz/Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos: Suite Española
Manuel De Falla: La Vida Breve (The Short Life)

María Rodriguez (Salud), Vicente Ombuena (Paco), Lola Casariego (Carmela), Marina Pardo (Abuela), Gustavo Peña (Voz de la Fragua), Josep Miquel Ramón (Tío Sarvaor), Pedro Sanz (Cantaor), Alfredo García (Manuel), Nuria Pomares (Dancer)
Pablo Sáinz Villegas (Guitar), Coro Nacional de España, Mireia Barrera (Director), New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos (Conductor)
NOTE: On October 18, María Rodriguez and Lola Casariego will switch roles.

Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos (© Chris Lee)

The New York season has just started, but already four events should remain eternally in our minds and ears. The Xenakis opera at Miller Theatre, where the composer seemed to have channeled ancient Greek music to our day; Martha Argerich playing two Russian concertos under her greatest partner, Charles Dutoit; James Levine conducting the Beethoven Grosse Fuge, Brahms and a Tantric meditation with a work by Messiaen.

And last night, the first of four performances conducted by the great Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos.

The advertised piece was the complete Manuel De Falla opera, La Vida Breve with the National Chorus of Spain and an all-Spanish cast, along with the New York Philharmonic. But this was an early piece by De Falla, which, while certainly rare was highly derivative for the young composer. The derivation was from Puccini - the piece sounded very very much like Il Tabarro, although that was composed some 14 years after this. And the orchestration seemed to have been taken from Ravel, which is quite likely.

But the unadvertised opening work was absolutely splendid Frühbeck de Burgos, his own orchestration of some works by Isaac Albéniz. They were visually and sonically just terrific.

Visually, the conductor is large and majestic and a thrill to watch. His motions are grand and eloquent. He doesn’t hide what he wants, either from orchestra or listeners. All five songs had titles from around Spain, and all five were marked with variations on Allegro. This meant they were filled with energy. But they were orchestrated with Gallic delicacy, with solo instruments and orchestral cascades, heavy rhythm and sometimes moody instrumentation which soon glistened and glowed under his command.

Seeing them on the program was a welcome surprise, and the Philharmonic responded to the Maestro’s directions with alacrity. The Phil players were moved around, with cellos facing directly from the centre of the stage, creating a greater contrast of light and dark colors, emphasizing a Spanish timbre.

Lasting barely 30 minutes, the Suite was followed, after an intermission, by the complete opera, with a truncated synopsis in the program. The story was pretty simple. An Andalusian woman named Salud expects to be married to her lover, Paco. But she sees him being married to Carmela so she falls down dead at his feet. Curtain. Or in the concert version, applause.

Later in his life, De Falla would ironically become more and more Spanish after studying and staying in Paris. Later, too, he would have more dynamic librettos to work with. This one is static, it has set pieces and—obviously—would benefit with a stage performance. But outside of the two dances—brilliantly performed in an eye-blinding tangerine-orange dress by Nura Pomares—the work has the usual set pieces of arias and duets. Most of these belong to María Rodriguez, as the ill-fated Salud, and she sung with fervor, excitement and, in the final scene, poignancy. The arias were vaguely Spanish (mainly through the use of sixteenth-note triplets throughout each piece). Obviously, as a woman who participates as much in zarzuela, Spanish short opéra comique, as in international opera, she handled the music well.

Others in the cast were perfectly adequate, but had little to do except comment on her plight. But a word must be said about the Coro Nacional de España. They play a very integral part here, first as laborers bemoaning their fate, then as party guests, and often interrupting an aria. They were excellent.

The opera itself is hardly the best of DeFalla, either in story of music, but hopefully, Maestro Frühbeck de Burgos will return soon with another program, for on the dais, he is a genuinely magnetic figure.

Harry Rolnick



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