Restoring the drama to El Amor Brujo

Joseph Horowitz

The two best-known scores by Manuel de Falla – El Amor Brujo and The Three-Cornered Hat – began as stage works. Today, however, we know them as symphonic suites. In the case of Amor Brujo, the loss is formidable: an austere drama turned into a picturesque entertainment.

The original 1915 El Amor Brujo, a gitaneria with dialogue, song, and dance, is unwieldy. The subsequent orchestral suite is fluent, but squanders the work’s gypsy soul. PostClassical Ensemble’s new staging of El Amor Brujo last weekend in DC was an attempt to restore the narrative and dance components without the words and stage detail encumbering the original version. Also, we used the original 1915 instrumentation – 15 players. It’s actually preferable – an amazing exercise in instrumentation/orchestration, eschewing the plushness of the 1925 ballet score. And for the songs we engaged not an operatic mezzo, but a famous flamenco cantaora from Seville: Esperanza Fernandez.

The orchestra was onstage behind a scrim, used for projections and lighting design. There were eight black-clad dancers. The ingenious director/choreographer was Igal Perry, from New York’s Peridance Contemporary Dance Company. Esperanza was also choreographed. The Washington Post found the result “profoundly memorable.”

In fact, we believe we have succeeded in creating a viable stage version Amor Brujo. As there are no sets, and the dancers only require fifteen feet of stage depth, we hope to tour it internationally.

El Amor Brujo was presented in collaboration with Georgetown University on a double bill with Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale, also fully staged. The two works were also coupled in 1925. They resonate in revealing ways. Falla, acknowledging the influence of Stravinsky on his own work, wrote of Stravinsky’s “primitivism” This is a term one could hardly apply to El Amor Brujo as it’s usually purveyed. But with a gypsy singing and gesticulating onstage, with the pared orchestration, with the austere flamenco influences on both music and plot brought into play, Falla’s appropriation of cante jondo proves gritty. This is a composer whose little home, fastidiously preserved in Granada near the Alhambra, is compact and severe. He lived ascetically with his sister. Stravinsky called him “painfully religious.”

The “Falla” we mainly know has wandered far from Falla.