Wednesday, June 28, 2023

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

  ReDISCoveries: Bernarda Alba 
(World Premiere Recording, Part Two)
Catch up on Part One HERE

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.

I recently read the play The House of Bernarda Alba by Federico García Lorca, which is the basis of LaChiusa’s musical. The adaptation is quite faithful, but the musical expands on the action of the play in some interesting ways. In particular, it’s not possible in a play to assign each character an “I Want” kind of monologue without interrupting the narrative, but such a thing is entirely possible within the conventions of a musical, and LaChiusa takes full advantage of that. One literally has to read between the lines to know the personality of each of Bernarda’s daughters in the play, but in the musical this can be made clear in the span of a brief song. 

LaChiusa’s music for Bernarda Alba, along with Michael Starobin’s orchestrations, incorporate flamenco conventions that have likely not been seen or heard on many New York stages. A very busy percussionist isn’t the only source of pulsation, as members of the cast create their own rhythms though copious stomping. Another musician plays pre-modern instruments like the shawm, a double-reed woodwind that sounds as if an oboe were trying to drown out a trumpet played at full blast. Singers regularly make otherworldly barking and yelping noises, and syllables are spread over multiple tortuous notes. Be prepared for sudden outbursts that include all of these effects at once.

If this all sounds like a bit of a slog, the compensating rewards are well worth the effort. There is some striking and unique music here, along with a great deal of more traditional lyricism amidst all the apparent chaos. There’s not much plot until near the end, giving LaChiusa the opportunity to write a series of intensely character-based songs - and there are certainly some worthy characters in this show, each of whom gets a song or two to sing, with striking variation in style and tone. 


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

I Will Dream of What I Saw: All of the younger women are doing some ogling here as some young workers in the town walk to their jobs. Aside from contributing to the buildup of libidinous energy that will drive the remainder of the show’s plot, this song is fairly negligible.

**Poncia: This is my favorite vocal performance on the recording, and it’s a great, laser-focused piece of songwriting. Poncia (Candy Buckley) finally gets to speak her full mind about her boss Bernarda Alba, and she pulls no punches: she savors the day when she’ll get to “watch, oh so silently, the house of Bernarda fall.” The music and lyrics are equally chilling.

Limbrada’s Daughter: A neighbor’s daughter is about to suffer some terrible consequences for having a child out of wedlock, and Bernarda (Phylicia Rashad) seizes on the opportunity as a teachable moment for her daughters, intoning to the show’s most menacing music that “all women who lust in sin must die.”

*One Moorish Girl/The Smallest Stream: After the servants engage in some playful sexual innuendo (to some very beautiful vocal arrangements), Bernarda sings her final dirge of the evening, lamenting the costs of widowhood and of aging: “I no longer sleep a slumber too deep, for I have to be on my guard.” 

The Mare and the Stallion: In my least favorite song of the show, Bernarda’s daughters witness… well, you can probably guess what they witness just from the title of the song, and that’s the problem. It’s a rather too obvious way to set us up for the show’s (not to mention Adela’s) impending climax.

Lullaby: Amid the building household chaos at the hands of Bernarda, her mother (Yolande Bavan) returns to recall a simpler time when the two could enjoy time together. There’s nothing special about this song, but it’s a nice respite before the intensity of the show’s final sequence.

Open the Door: The music here is tense, restless, and insistent, as Pepe knocks on Adela’s (Nikki M. James) door. She resists at first, but ultimately surrenders to excitement and to mortal danger, effectively ending Bernarda’s reign over her own house.

Finale: Believing that Bernarda has killed Pepe, Adela has killed herself. Having learned nothing, but having lost all of her power, Bernarda insists fruitlessly that her daughters continue the charade: “My daughter died a virgin. And you will keep your silence. Silence. Silence.”

Next time I’ll discuss the 1999 off-Broadway cast recording of Adam Guettel’s Myths and Hymns.

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