Home | Reviews | Articles | Festivals | Competitions | Other | Contact Us

Balada Christopher Columbus

Cristóbal Colón . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . José Carreras*
Queen Isabella . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Montserrat Caballé*
Martín Alonso Pinzón . . . . . . . . . . .Carlos Chausson
Padre Fray Antonio de Marchena . . Luis Álvarez*
King Fernando . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Stefano Palatchi
Beatriz Enríquez . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Victoria Vergara

Orchestra & Chorus of Gran Teatre del Liceu/Theo Alcantára


Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, September 1989

Naxos 8.660237-38

Leonardo Balada (b. 1933) is a major Spanish composer who, to my great regret, has passed me by until now, though he is well represented in the Naxos catalogue.

Released on CD in a month when the moon landing 40 years ago is being celebrated, Columbus' persistent faith in his compulsion to seek the land towards the Indies against scepticism in high places is a great theme for an opera. If it were premiered 20 years on, nowadays, it would have been a multi-opera house shared project, and with so starry a cast, would probably have reached Covent Garden.

Balada was a paid-up modernist in the '60s & '70s, avoiding melodic lines; instead of composing operas he produced cantatas with speaking narrators and choruses sung "gesturally with guttural effects"...

From 1975 he incorporated melody again as a new dimension in his music, and writing opera made sense, culminating in Cristóbal Colón (1984-86), which does not fight against singers' natural comfort - he does not write music in which the singers are his enemies [MusicWeb] - but retains an advanced 20th Century vocabulary for the orchestra. That may sound contrived, but it seems to work and in this opera comes over persuasively as "a true synthesis of styles, not an eclectic conglomeration". Furthermore, he consciously introduces "cultural and ethnic traditions" alongside "technological imagery of today".*

All that may well have made sceptical enemies amongst the avant-garde, but working with his illustrious principals Carreras and Caballé, as well as with his librettist Antonio Gala throughout the composition process, the outcome was highly successful, and greeted with acclamation by audiences and by The New York Times and The Financial Times, to mention two respected publications.

I have been captivated, first by the great story, and its treatment in "a back and forth fluidity of time and place in the minds of the audience"; ideal for CD. Carreras and Caballé are in fine voice at this live recording, Chausson and Álvarez making distinguished contributions, all under Theo Alcantára's sympathetic direction. Supplied in a slip case, Naxos is generous with synopsis and commentary, Spanish text and English translation.

Perhaps Balada, now in his mid 70s, is more a composer of the 21st Century? What prospects for a UK production? It would appeal to Conservatoire and College opera Departments, but for most of them the orchestral demands are probably too large? But University College Opera comes to mind; they play in larger theatres draw on a wide roster of orchestral players, and their policy would allow them to engage a professional heroic tenor, q.v. Bloch's Macbeth. **

Failing that, a BBC concert performance at The Barbican might be a possibility?

Strongly recommended.

Peter Grahame Woolf

*- - his absolute mastery of all professional resources allows him to combine various aesthetic tendencies within a style of expressionist pragmatism - - his music seems to go off in various directions but extracts the components that suit his personality [Tomas Marco Spanish Music in the 20th Century]

** That suggestion was made befor knowing of the American college production of The Death of Columbus, reviewed below.

Leonardo Balada La Muerte de Colón

Jon Garrison, David Okerlund, Kathryn Mueller, Raymond Blackwell, Judith Jenkins, Dimitrie Lazich, Milutin Lazich, Arturo Martín, Katy Shackleton-Williams and Brent Stater

Members of the Mendelssohn Choir, Carnegie Mellon Repertory Chorus & Philharmonic Conducted by Robert E. Page

Naxos 8.660237–38

The Death of Columbus (1992-96) is a sequel to the opera reviewed above and was recorded by an American cast in USA, headed by tenor Jon Garrison, who has regularly appeared at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, and supported in this recording by an efficient orchestra of college students, with chorus from the Carnegie Mellon University, all well held together by conductor Robert Page.

It begins with a spectacular scene depicting the triumphant return of Columbus to Barcelona from his discovery of the New World, but that proves to be a flashback; in reality, Columbus is in delirium on his deathbed, reliving old glories but forced to come to terms with his guilt for the brutalities his expedition visited upon the native population, his conscence represented by a Mysterious Character, with racial resonances right through to today.

The libretto focuses on the suffering of the indigenous Americans at the hands of the marauding European invaders and the dying Columbus takes on the mantle of a Christ-like figure, seeking forgiveness for all the future ills of the world to come. A bleak opera but one which promises a powerful theatrical experience.

Balada's method is similar to that of the earlier opera, which we enjoyed, and it will appeal to those who have enjoyed the earlier work, despite the scepticism of some commentators - "artfully put together and expertly scored, but essentially empty exercises in gesture-making - neither score repays repeated listening" Andrew Clements.

Peter Grahame Woolf