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Falla: “El Sombrero de tres picos”

Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes took brief refuge from World War I in Granada and Seville, and there the Russian impresario’s attention was drawn to Falla’s work.He first hoped to fashion Nights in the Gardens of Spain as a ballet, but soon elected to adapt instead Falla’s pantomime of 1917, El Corregidor y la molinera (The Magistrate and the Miller’s Wife), for which he assembled a memorable team of collaborators.Falla, Diaghilev, the choreographer Leonide Massine, and the dance star Felix Garcia toured Andalusia together to study the native musicians and dancers.None other than Picasso was engaged for the costumes and decor, which included a magnificent front-drop depicting a bullfight. Shortly thereafter, the ballet troupe found employment in London. By that time, Garcia had become too ill to dance, and his part was taken by Massine. On that afternoon of the first performance, Falla was summoned by telegram back to Madrid to his mother’s deathbed. The Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet stepped in to conduct. Falla’s ballet was an overnight success.

The story takes place in the eighteenth century in a small Spanish village. the miller and his wife live in a mill-house by a bridge, their esplanade shaded by a vine from which hang enormous clusters of grapes. A naughty blackbird is caged there, and we see, too, a portion of the living quarters, dominated by an imposing conjugal bed. It is afternoon.

The homey miller and his beautiful wife flirt with the passerby. The corregidor enters, oblivious that the grotesque hat, symbol of his authority, is the object of collective derision. When the miller’s wife returns a glove he has let fall, he is smitten. Later, he returns to court the wife; she, pretending not to notice him, dances a purposefully erotic fandango. Then she tempts and teases him with a bunch of the grapes until he falls exhausted to the ground. The miller and his wife resume the fandango.

That evening is St. John’s Night, a time of merrymaking. The neighbors come onstage and the miller dances a big solo piece (added for Massine). The corregidor’s inquisitors arrive (to Beethoven’s “fate knocking at the door” motive) and arrest the miller ,as the guests flee. the miller’s wife is left alone as a distant gypsy warns wives to bar their doors lest a devil ocme to call. Her song ends with the call of a cuckoo, followed by a cuckoo clock striking nine. The corregidor, having fallen in the water as he crossed the bridge, enters dripping wet, removes his clothes, and gets into the bed. Chaos ensues: the miller returns and infers the worst; the corregidor and the miller end up in each other’s garments; the inquisitors pursue the wrong man; the merrymakers wrap the hated corregidor in a blanket and toss him around like a puppet.

Falla’s music is gracious and restrained, based largely on traditional melodies, and with a host of technical clevernesses to reflect the action on stage. You can virtually see the ballet in your mind’s eye, especially if you follow Falla’s synopsis, where each new turn of events is cued to a number in the piano score. Indeed you must try, in a concert performance, to imagine the dancing, for otherwise the jota at the end, a castanet dance in the triple, is the only really thrilling segment. the introduction, with its distant oles and clapping, was an addition demanded by Diaghilev to allow the audience to admire Picasso’s front-drop when the curtains first parted.

Yet here as elsewhere in Falla, the orchestral brushwork is wonderfully delicate. Listen, for example, for the well music (complete with creaky winch) in the first tableau, accomplished with high piccolos and string harmonics. Strings are used in solos, pairs, or a half-section at a time, and though the work calls for a full brass section, the trombones and third and fourth horns enter for the first time in the concluding dance. The piano, as in Nights in the Gardens of Spain, provides the arabesques and arpeggiations demanded by the style. The guitar, whose textures and practices literally define the idiom, does not appear at all, and castanets are heard only at the beginning and end. Instead the whole orchestra conveys the spirit of a music dominated by one voice and guitar. The first bassoon payer, who portrays the wily corregidor instrumentally, should get a solo bow.

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