La vida breve [Sung in Spanish]
Worker Richard Coxon
Grandmother Susan Gorton
Salud Mary Plazas
Paco Leonardo Capalbo
Uncle Sarvaor Graeme Broadbent
Carmela Kim-Marie Woodhouse
Flamenco singer Adrian Clarke
Manuel Mark Stone
Workers Miranda Bevin, Rachel Mosley, Cordelia Fish & Harold Sharples
Chorus and Orchestra of Opera North
Director Christopher Alden
Designer Johan Engels
Costumes Sue Willmington
Lighting Adam Silverman
Choreography Claire Glaskin
Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell
Reviewed: 23 June, 2004
Venue: Sadler's Wells Theatre, London
Stage outings of Manuel de Falla’s La vida breve are not frequent, supposedly for the reason that it is not very dramatic. However, whether one liked the setting or not, this production certainly proved such an opinion untrue.
Christopher Alden had translated this story of an innocent love betrayed to a modern-day one. Salud and her Grandmother and the ladies of the village are revealed working in a sweatshop wedding-dress factory, with corrugated iron walls with flaking paintwork, neon lights and no windows. The men, presumably unemployed, sit around on the margins. Rather as in David Pountney’s production of Il Tabarro seen earlier in the evening, the moment the curtain rose there was a sense of tension, of menace that permeated the stage. This was an unexpected but gripping response to the sultry opening pages. The presence of a transvestite worker, in the form of Richard Coxon, was obviously the focus for much of the aggression – both from the women and the men. His character, sometimes effeminate, sometimes bravely insolent, obviously had some affinity with the love-smitten Salud, and was brutally beaten up by some of the men at the same moment that Salud realises how Paco has deceived her. This is a place where outsiders are not received cordially.
The long first scene, where Salud sings of her love for Paco, and the grandmother comments on his fickleness, was staged very statically with Salud seated at her sewing machine throughout, and the Grandmother making final adjustments to a dress, which later turns out to be for Carmela, the woman who Paco is to marry. This added to the tension and set the scene remarkably well. Mary Plazas sang Salud, with extraordinary beauty of tone and vocal and dramatic intensity. She also really looked the part and one really felt for her predicament. Susan Gorton’s stentorian tones as Grandmother proved a real vocal foil during this scene.
Paco’s arrival in the factory seemed not to register with the crowd but only with Salud. He arrives, evidently from a different social class, sending text-messages from his mobile, flashing his new watch and smoking ostentatiously. He does not have a huge amount to sound, but in the brief moments allotted Leonardo Capalbo ably revealed the character’s weakness with some clarion singing. Graeme Broadbent’s tall and resonantly voiced Uncle Sarvaor, who reveals Paco’s duplicity, was also a strong presence.
The score is famous for its flamenco dances and vocal set-pieces, which were wonderfully played by the orchestra, the exotic colours being allowed full reign, the dances well integrated into the dramatic action rather than requiring accommodation or suspension of the drama. Martin André, who has a very strong instinct for musically theatrical pacing, achieved this apparently effortlessly. Producers must like to work with him! During the dance Carmela was fitted into her wedding dress by Grandmother and the ladies, whilst the appearance of Adrian Clarke’s sky-blue suited and well-sung flamenco singer heralded the arrival of Paco with Carmela’s brother. The drama progressed inexorably towards its gruesome conclusion, as Salud dons a wedding dress of her own and commits a long slow suicide of disfigurement, finally stabbing herself with the sharp blade of a pair of dressmaking scissors. This ordeal, enacted to the wedding dance, was very unsettling.
This was another success in the canon of “little greats”. It also complemented the preceding Il Tabarro very well. Who would have thought of these two pieces as a viable double-bill? Opera North’s season is certainly opening some new operatic windows.