La Vida Breve
Manuel de Falla
Length: c. 70 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (3 = piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (anvils, bass drum, bells, castanets, cymbals, snare drum, glockenspiel, tam-tam, and triangle), celesta, guitar, 2 harps, strings, chorus, and soloists
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance:
Falla had little success with the six zarzuelas he wrote in the first years of the 20th century, but in 1905 he won an opera competition in Madrid with the two-act La vida breve (The Brief Life), on a libretto by Carlos Fernández Shaw. The promised production of the work, however, did not take place, and it was still unperformed when Falla left Spain in 1907 to tour in France as a piano accompanist. He ended up living in Paris for the next seven years, returning to Spain only with the outbreak of World War I. Encouraged by French musicians – particularly Paul Dukas – Falla continued to pitch La vida breve to theaters from Milan to London. It was finally accepted at the Casino Municipal in Nice in 1913. The Opéra Comique in Paris presented it in January 1914, and it was staged triumphantly in Madrid shortly after Falla’s return.
The plot concerns the brief life and love of the gypsy girl Salud, who has been seduced by Paco, a fashionable upper-class youth. The first act takes place in the courtyard of the house where Salud lives with her grandmother in the Albaicín quarter of Granada. To one side is a blacksmith’s forge, from which comes rhythmic hammering and singing. The grandmother appears with some birds in a cage, one of which may be dying, perhaps of love, the grandmother suspects, like Salud. A voice from the forge sings a traditional Andalusian verse: “¡Malhaya el hombre, malhaya, que nace con negro sino! ¡Malhaya quien nace yunque en vez de nacer martillo!” (Luckless the man, luckless, who is born with a dark fate! Luckless the one born an anvil instead of a hammer!) The caged, dying bird and the hammer blows of fate are clear omens of the tragedy-in-the-making, but there are also the cries of street vendors and the suggestion of dance music – ambient ironies that are not lost on the grandmother.
Despite their vow of eternal love, he abandons her to marry a richer woman, Carmela. In Act II, Salud and her relatives invade the wedding party at Carmela’s home; Salud reproaches Paco for his betrayal and collapses dead at his feet.
The sinuous, rhythmically insistent jota occurs at the beginning of Act II, when the girls and women gathering for the party break into dance. The moody, nocturnal Interlude covers the subsequent scene change, so that its intimations of the jota are actually recollections of the dance, not previews as they are in the excerpted order.