DE FALLA: El amor brujo.* El retablo de Maese Pedro+ / *Esperanza Fernández, mezzo; +Jennifer Zetlan, sop (Trujamán)); Jorge Garza, ten (Master Pedro); Alfredo García, bar (Don Quixote); Perspectives Ensemble; Angel Gil-Ordóñez, cond / Naxos 8.573890
Angel Gil-Ordóñez, principal guest conductor of New York’s Perspectives Ensemble and music director of the Georgetown University Orchestra, gives us here the original 1915 version of de Falla’s well-known El amor brujo and a new recording of his excellent but lesser-known one-act opera, El retablo de Maese Pedro. And it is an ass-kicker.
From the very first notes of the Introduction, we know we’re in for a treat. This is no PC, “soft classical,” dumbed-down de Falla, but a full-blooded treatment of the score with the adrenaline and caffeine rush of Toscanini’s legendary performance. Our vocalist and recite, Esperenza Fernández, has a prettier voice than Josefina Burzio, the soloist in Toscanini’s performance, but somewhat less of a Flamenco edge. Nonetheless, she is quite good throughout. This performance also includes a good amount of the spoken
lines that Toscanini omitted from his broadcast. After its 1915 premiere, music critics who were used to the more sedate music of Albéniz savaged it, but as de Falla explained, “The work is eminently Gitano [gypsy]. To execute it I always used folklore – some of it from Pastora Imperio herself, who sings them from long tradition and with undeniable ‘authenticity.’” For those who don’t know, Pastora Imperio, also known as simply L’Imperio or Imperio Argentina, was considered one of the greatest cantares of her time. Her only real rival was the equally legendary La Niña de los Peines or “The Girl of the Combs,” whose real name was Pastora Pavón Cruz.
Gil-Ordóñez takes the opening section of the famous “Ritual Fire Dance” a bit slower than one is used to it, but still drives the rhythm strongly, later increasing to the more familiar quick tempo in the second half. By contrast, the “Dance of Terror” is taken at a brisk tempo throughout. Yet in the entire suite, he emphasizes the bright, almost savage sonorities of de Falla’s score (as did Toscanini) and binds the music together to bring out the work’s structure. It is, quite simply, a marvelous performance, and the Perspectives Ensemble plays it with sensitivity as well as great energy. In the “Song of the Will-o’-the-Wisp,” Fernández sings with great style and drive though without the brighter, more cutting timbre that Burzio brought to it. Still, this is far more authentic than the wet-blanket singing of Victoria de los Angeles, everyone else’s favorite singer in this music, whose performance (though conducted well by de Burgos) was about as exciting as a bowl of stewed prunes. In “Danza y cancion de la bruja fingida,” both Fernández and Gil-Ordóñez drive the music with an almost savage intensity—good for them! This section, in particular, runs rings around the de los Angeles-de Burgos version.
El retablo de Maese Pedro, which I actually saw performed once in person, is a marvelous little opera that de Falla adapted from an episode in Cervantes’ Don Quixote. In recent years, there has been a tendency to cast a boy soprano as Trujamán (i.e., the Josep Pons recording on Harmonia Mundi), but I don’t care for that. What one needs above all else is a female soprano who can sound like a boy, as the music is a bit more challenging than most boy sopranos can handle. In this recording, we get the absolutely fantastic Jennifer Zetlan, who reminded me very much of the soprano I heard sing it in person, Mayda Prado. And wow, does Gil-Ordóñez conduct it with energy! In that respect, the performance is far better than the one I heard. The brilliance, “cut” and energy of Zetlan’s singing are absolutely superb, evidently a result of her long experience singing contemporary works such as Ricky Ian Gordon’s Morning Star and Louis Karchin’s Jane Eyre as well as occasional performances as Xenia in Boris Godunov and Purcell’s The Fairy Queen. She is good in this kind of music because she enjoys challenges and doesn’t just want a career as a cookie-cutter soubrette.
Without the visual aspect, however, which includes (as noted in the title) a puppet show, some of the music tends to fall flat when just listening, such as the strictly instrumental passages in Scene 2. This, of course, is no fault of de Falla’s or the conductor, but simply a condition of listening to a work that was meant to be seen as well as heard. Nonetheless, this is a splendid performance, and although the boy Trujamán dominates the proceedings, both tenor Jorge Garza as Master Pedro and baritone Alfredo Garcia as Don Quixote are really outstanding singers. (An interesting side-note: in the original 1915 production, the role of Don Quixote was sung by the famous French baritone Hector Dufranne.)
This performance of El retablo goes straight to the top of my list of preferred versions, and I consider the El amor brujo to be very nearly the equal of Toscanini’s in performance quality and, of course, far superior in sound.
—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley
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