Wednesday, June 14, 2023

ReDISCoveries: Bernarda Alba (World Premiere Recording, Part One)

 ReDISCoveries: Bernarda Alba 
(World Premiere Recording, Part One)

Jeff has kindly invited me to revisit and review some of the older cast recordings in my collection. Every other week or so, I’ll write about a new CD, offering some general impressions followed by my thoughts about each individual song. I continue this week with the 2006 World Premiere Recording of Michael John LaChiusa’s Bernarda Alba.

This ambitious musical, which played at the off-Broadway Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center, is based on the similarly-named classic play by Federico García Lorca. It tells the story of the titular Bernarda, a mother of five daughters whose husband has just died as the show begins. Deeply wounded by life, she attempts to prevent further harm to herself and her family by tightly controlling their lives, gradually creating a web of secrets, lies, and suppressed desires that results in the destruction of her family from the inside. LaChiusa’s Bush-era musical, reflecting Lorca’s Franco-era play, seems to serve as a metaphorical comment on the creeping authoritarianism of the post-9/11 American security state.

In addition to Bernarda and her daughters, other characters include Bernarda’s own widowed mother and her rather bitter servant. The small all-female cast is tasked with bringing to life this most modern of concept musicals, which is built around the Spanish art form of flamenco. (Direction and choreography by Graciela Daniele) The vivid music and continuous dancing all draw from flamenco traditions, yielding an exotic, fascinating, and sometimes difficult set of songs for the listener. 

Today’s entry covers roughly the first half of the score, which consists of a few expositional numbers followed by some intensely character-focused songs. Next time I’ll review the rest of the CD, which features more plot-based songs. I’ll also offer some comments on LaChiusa’s unique approach to this score, as well as the essential contributions of his orchestrator, Michael Starobin.


I use a star (*) to mark the songs I particularly like, and my overall favorite gets two stars (**).

*Prologue: The servant Poncia (Candy Buckley) takes us through the entire backstory of Bernarda’s family, including her first marriage to a wealthy man (which produced her oldest daughter Angustias), and her second marriage to a handsome but poor one, Antonio. The sense of musical momentum is very exciting here, aided by Buckley’s vocal effects and the company’s audible flamenco dancing. The lyrics are quite dense, as when Poncia sings: “Antonio left Bernarda’s bed in search of warmth from another: his stepdaughter Angustias, or the servant of her mother.” She’s saying that Antonio’s cheating was an in-house matter involving his own stepdaughter and Poncia herself, but it’s hard for a listener to get all of this out of a couple of quickly sung lines. I think this song, and the score in general, is probably better appreciated on the recording than on stage. 

The Funeral: In this short song, Bernarda (Phylicia Rashad) mourns her husband in traditional Catholic fashion as Poncia and other members of the household staff mutter insults (like “sanctimonious snake!”) behind her back. It’s a good preview of Bernarda’s mournful, self-pitying affect, as well as her relationship with those around her.

On the Day that I Marry/Bernarda’s Prayer: As the servants imagine their own weddings, Bernarda remembers her fraught relationship with Antonio. LaChiusa wisely gives Rashad the simplest music in the show, with slow tempos and long, sustained notes. It’s both expedient and dramatically effective, but it means that the title character gets some of the least memorable music.

Love, Let Me Sing You: A young suitor named Pepe has made an offer of marriage to the oldest and wealthiest daughter, Angustias, and her sisters are by turns dismissive and intensely envious as they mock the song that Pepe sang to her. Pepe is the only man any of them have access to, and this song sets things up for the show’s tragic climax.

*Let Me Go to the Sea: Bernarda’s mother Maria Josepha (Yolande Bavan) has escaped her prison cell of a bedroom and, unlike her granddaughters, she is not shy about making her desires known to Bernarda. The lyrics here do a good job of establishing the character’s lustiness as well as her senility, and the music builds nicely into a full-throated (if futile) demand that Bernarda allow her (and, by implication, her daughters) to go out into the world and build their own lives.

This brief number starts a miniature song-cycle, with a characteristic musical moment for each of the five daughters. Here, Magdalena (Judith Blazer) recounts the story of a man dying of thirst, contrasting it with her own plight in a very dramatic musical line: “My pains, mother, are not pains of hunger; my pains, mother, are the pains of love.”

Angustias: Bernarda’s oldest daughter Angustias (Saundra Santiago) can hear her suitor sing at her window, but she and her sisters know, and sing, the truth: “I can’t hear him in my heart.” In other words, everyone seems to know that Angustias is the sister with the money, but not the one Pepe really desires. 

*Amelia: Amelia (Sally Murphy) is the most innocent of the five sisters, but while out shopping today she has managed to catch the eye of a boy, stirring up some new feelings. The music in this brief song does the heavy lifting: Amelia’s childish, jaunty melody is punctuated with loud intrusions from the drummer (and vocal “bum-bum-bums” from her sisters) whenever the boy is mentioned, a nice aural metaphor for incipient desire.

Martirio: Martirio, who regards herself as the least attractive, contrasts the dreams of her sisters with her own dim prospects. Daphne Rubin-Vega, cast against-type, is probably given the least to work with in the whole show, but does a good job making the most of her relatively unassuming song.

**Adela: In the show’s most complex musical sequence, the youngest sister Adela (Nikki M. James) makes it clear that she will not be playing by Bernarda’s rules: “I won’t be locked away like you,” she insists, to a spare but defiant melody. A vigorous mid-song dance-break gives way to a soaring, almost ALW-like tune, with Adela poignantly vowing to “love while I can in the time that I have.” The sequence ends with a musical montage, with the other four sisters returning to join her with simultaneous reprises of their own songs.

Look for Part Two of this review in two weeks!

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