Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos has returned to the National Symphony for his annual winter visit as principal guest conductor and is filling the Kennedy Center Concert Hall this week with the sounds and rhythms of his native Spain.

He is opening the week's concerts with three pieces from Iberia by Albeniz, and closing with a complete account of Manuel de Falla's early opera, "La Vida Breve," or "A Short Life." Contrary to the myths about "a short life but a merry one," Falla's two-act drama brings a tragic end to one of the sadder triangles in opera. Along the way, however, it is filled with idiomatic choral outbursts while the most familiar passages in it surround two brilliant dance scenes.

The heroes of these performances are the conductor, the orchestra, the dancer and the members of Norman Scribner's Choral Arts Society. Fru hbeck, who made a definitive recording of the opera some years ago, has every nuance and pulse beat deep within his mind and heart. Needing no score, he led with utmost flexibility, offering dynamic shadings and dramatic contrasts within a large framework.

"La Vida Breve" is a simple-enough story: Salud, a poor girl, has been seduced by Paco, at the same time that he is preparing to marry rich Carmela. When Salud discovers the truth she goes to his wedding celebration and denounces him in front of his bride -- and, when he denies the whole thing, falls dead at his feet.

The most vivid moments of the evening came with Lucero Tena in the two famous dances. In one she was accompanied by the stunning flamenco singing of Manolo Mairena, backed by a solo guitar. The narrow space at the front of the stage was all Tena needed for her pounding heels and sharp, biting castanets.

The element of illusion is necessary if the story is to convince audiences. Staged, the opera works very well. Last night, however, with the singers reading from their scores, it was hard to believe the exchange of passion between Salud and Paco and impossible to imagine the confrontation of the final scene in which Salud is backed up by her outraged grandmother and uncle.

The singing was, for the most part, competent, with David Gordon's voice noteworthy in the distance. Enriqueta Tarres' Salud began rather routinely. Her chief aria, "Vivan los que rien," lacked color and force, but she achieved real pathos in the final scene.

Rose Taylor was the grandmother, Ellen Lang sang Carmela, and Evelio Esteve the Paco. Leroy Lehr's explosive denunciation of Paco was one of the few dramatically convincing moments. Ben Holt sang a resonant and affecting Manuel.

If there were some way for the principals to sing without their scores and to interact with each other, as they have all done on opera stages, the difference would be enormous.

Fru hbeck prefaced the opera with Albeniz's Evocacion, El Corpus en Sevilla, and Triana, from Iberia. These were filled with glowing sound and subtle rhythms achieved with great skill by conductor and players alike. The program will be repeated tonight, tomorrow and Friday.