El amor brujo is by no means a conventional opera. Working with Pastora Imperio, a flamenco-performer, Manuel de Falla drew heavily on Gypsy culture with a blend of vocal writing, narrative and dance that defies traditional concert expectations and unsurprsingly failed to resonate with critics who deemed the combination unpalatable. The reaction left Falla tinkering with it for over ten years, finally dismantling the working and reassembling it as a one-act ballet, the first score forgotten until the musicologist Antonio Gallego discovered traces of the original and painstakingly restored it. It's a short, flavoursome work that Falla imbued with the colours and notes of the Spaniard Gypsy; unsurprisingly it's both red-blooded and surprisingly melancholy. Candelas, a Gypsy, discovers via cards that her beau has no feeling for her and she turns to a witch to learn how to subjugate the false-hearted wretch to her passion.

María Toledo in <i>El amor brujo</i> © BBC | Mark Allan
María Toledo in El amor brujo
© BBC | Mark Allan

A reduced BBC Symphony Orchestra – though not quite down to the fifteen players of Falla's original score – gave a tremendous performance under Josep Pons that captured the intensity, passion and anguish of the work. A little bit of a punch from Pons was needed at times to inject a tad more vigour, but the Danza del fin del dia and the Intermedio was sensitively and tenderly drawn out. Falla is generous with solos and individual contributions from the woodwind (sinuous oboe playing) and strings (a particularly vibrant cello and a violin solo simple in its elegance) were a delight to hear. The standout performance though was John Alley's superb contribution at the piano, subtle and enigmatic, yet quite clearly providing the cohesion that bound the score together. Less successful was flamenco singer María Toledo whose performance, distractingly amplified, was monotonous and uninspiring. An unpleasant huskiness, admittedly potentially distorted by the microphone, was not helped by the substantial wobble in the voice. Inert waving of the arms contributed very little.

Josep Pons conducts <i>Goyescas</i> © BBC | Mark Allan
Josep Pons conducts Goyescas
© BBC | Mark Allan

While El amor turned from opera to ballet, Granados' Goyescas started life as a piano work and it is still in this form that it is best known. As the name suggests, the inspiration for the work(s) came from the painter Francisco Goya, to whose art Granados was devoted. Granados and Fernando Periquet, his librettist, stitched together the piano suites together with a vocal thread to create a febrile and bloody plot that feels like Catalan verismo. There's a small cast of four: the toreador Paquiro has tired of his girlfriend, the spiky Pepa, and now lusts after Rosario, currently attached to the captain Fernando. Paquiro invites Rosario to a ball and in anger Fernando insists that he will take her. A dance, a fight, a love duet in a moonlit garden and a deadly duel that ends with Fernando's death – these fairly typical plot points come thick and fast, distinguished again by the warmth of the orchestral writing. The first ten minutes of the opera are spicy and bright, the BBC Singers singing the randy majos and flirtatious majas (young men and women of Madrid) with raucous enthusiasm, skillfully evoking the atmosphere of 1800s Spain. 

Nancy Fabiola Herrera (Rosario) and Gustavo Peña (Fernando) in <i>Goyescas</i> © BBC | Mark Allan
Nancy Fabiola Herrera (Rosario) and Gustavo Peña (Fernando) in Goyescas
© BBC | Mark Allan

The cast took a little while to get going. After a slow start, José Antonio López brought real drama to his singing, the initial amiably muscular presence drowned with sadness and anger in the voice. Lopez's diction was strong and there was a bite to the voice that lent itself to moments of drama.  Lidia Vinyes-Curtis doesn't have the biggest voice, but she certainly acted the part, a seductive and volatile figure whose posture, interestingly enough, was exactly reflected in the tone of her singing – not the easiest element to get right – and her delivery was tart and nuanced. Rosario has the biggest part and Nancy Fabiola Herrera largely rose to the challenge, though one sensed that the top of her ample voice was slightly discomforted by some of the writing. Sadly there seemed to be very little chemistry between her and her Fernando, sung by Gustavo Peña, who lacked charisma and stage presence. After an initially promising start, he seemed to fade badly and the duet towards the end of the opera which should be full of mutual passion was largely carried by Herrera. 

Pons again brought this score to life and the quality of playing was high, with noticeably strong contributions from the brass in the second tableau. Some slightly psychedelic lighting aside, it was a memorable performance. The BBCSO's operatic endeavours have waned somewhat since their regular forays into the Czech repertoire ended with the death of Jiří Bělohlávek. A foray into the underperformed Spanish/Catalan canon with Pons would be most welcome.