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Toronto Montreal

Preview: Toronto Symphony Orchestra presents two nights of Spanish passion in opera La vida breve

By John Terauds on October 31, 2012

Mezzo Nancy Fabiola Herrera is the doomed Gypsy Salud in Manuel de Falla’s La vida breve.

Thanks to a concert presentation put together by the venerable Spanish conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, Torontonians get two chances this week to experience the striking blend of folk and art music that is Manuel de Falla’s two-act operatic tragedy, La vida breve (The Short Life) at Roy Thomson Hall.

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds

The opera, which is barely longer than an hour, is as much about the music as the story itself — a doomed love affair between Salud, a Gypsy woman, and the wealthy Paco, a two-timing jerk who hangs her out to die on their supposed wedding day. The score bursts with the sounds of Andalusia, and includes parts for a Flamenco dancer, cantaor and guitarist on top of the seven-person cast and a chorus (which is being sung by the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir).

The dances from the opera have been staples of the classical guitar repertoire practically since the opera’s premiere in 1913 (Falla wrote it in 1905, but had a long and frustrating wait for its début in France, which appreciated his music more than the people in Spain). The music-heavy score is well-suited to a concert stage, but the specialized knowledge of folk performance has limited its appeal among conductors.

Frühbeck, a champion of the music of Spain, put together this concert version with some of his favourite performers. He has taken this version of La vida breve to the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, among other noble venues. Last summer, the gang presented the work at Tanglewood. This season, only Toronto and Los Angeles get to savour this treat.

The main role of Salud is being sung by Canary Island native, mezzo Nancy Fabiola Herrera, best known for her portrayals of Carmen, another tragic gypsy character. She is one of those rare, magnetic divas with a voice that can slay dragons — and toreadors.

She is also wonderfully down-to-earth, a fan of Spanish zarzuelas (the country’s folksy style of operetta) and one of Plácido Domingo’s favourite collaborators (there’s an excellent DVD of a 2006 Madrid Teatro Real production of the zarzuela Luisa Fernanda starring Herrera and Domingo).

Herrera says she enjoys the additional challenge of presenting an opera without the benefit of full set and costumes. “You have a different kind of adrenaline. This way, it gets a little more personal with the public. Everybody is concentrated and there are no distractions,” she explains. “It’s up to the singer to get into the mood and the whole situation.”

The mezzo is a devoted recitalist outside her operatic life. “The story and the music are the only two elements present,” she says. “It’s all in the expression you give it.”

Herrera describes her work with Frübeck in this opera as love at first sight. “I love the way he conducts and the way he feels this particular work, which he has done for almost 40 years with great Saluds such as Victoria de los Angeles.”

“The energy that is created on stage is even greater and the conductor can get more nuances out of you,” Herrera explains of her happy working relationship with Frübeck. “It’s like a dance.” It’s a twirl around the stage that the whole cast appears to be enjoying. “We have wonderful camaraderie,” says the singer, “and this really helps the energy, too.”

In a twist I don’t understand apart from needing a familiar composer’s name on the bill to sell tickets, the Toronto Symphony has paired the oversize musical drama of Falla’s opera with Beethoven’s big-but-lighthearted Symphony No. 8 to be the evening’s appetizer.

For all the details on the performances on Thursday and Saturday, click here.

As a foretaste of what to expect in La vida breve, here is one of Salud’s arias, sung by Lola Casariego and conducted by Maximiano Valdés, followed by an instrumental insterlude from Act One (I don’t know who the other performers are):

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds
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