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ClassicsOnline Home » BALADA, L.: Cristobal Colon (Christopher Columbus) [Opera] (Carreras, Caballe, Gran Teatre del Liceu, Alcantara)
From one of the world’s great opera houses, the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona, comes Leonardo Balada’s richly melodic opera about one of the world’s great explorers, Christopher Columbus, commissioned by the Spanish government for the 5th Centennial of the Discovery of America. A superb cast, headed by José Carreras as Columbus and Monserrat Caballé as Queen Isabella of Spain, gained critical acclaim for their performances in what The Washington Times described as “a masterpiece…a landmark score in the lyric theater of our time”.
Leonardo Balada (b. 1933)
Cristóbal Colón (Christopher Columbus)
Opera in two acts
Libretto by Antonio Gala (b. 1930)
Premièred at the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, on 24 September 1989
Cristóbal Colón - José Carreras, Tenor
Queen Isabella - Montserrat Caballé, Soprano
Martín Alonso Pinzón - Carlos Chausson, Baritone
Padre Fray Antonio de Marchena - Luis Álvarez, Baritone
King Fernando - Stefano Palatchi, Bass
Advisor - Miguel Solá, Baritone
Treasurer - Juan Pedro García Márquez, Bass
General - Jesús Sanz Remiro, Bass
Scientist - Gregorio Poblador, Bass
Bishop - Miguel López Galindo, Bass
Beatriz Enríquez - Victoria Vergara, Mezzo-soprano
Rodrigo de Triana - Antonio Lluch, Tenor
Sailors, Judeans, Neighbours, Men, Women and Children of Palos, Indians
Orchestra and Chorus of the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona
Chorus conductors: Romano Gandolfi and Vittorio Sicuri
Original Idea and Promotion: Aquiles García Tuero
Sponsored by Grupo Endesa
Commissioned by Sociedad Estatal Quinto Centenario
One of the preoccupations I have had during the last few years has been the relentless speeding of our society toward an alarming cultural uniformity. This fact has influenced my aesthetic position in that it has spurred my affinity with ethnic dimensions. While I was composing the opera, we were at the dawn of the 21st century and one might have expected Cristóbal Colón to be futuristic and full of tomorrow’s technological imageries. Instead, I chose to portray a world that balances technological progress and space trips on the one hand with cultural and ethnic traditions on the other. Accordingly, with this precept in mind, I have created an opera in which the music looks to the future but also echoes the past.
To me, the important elements in opera are the identification of dramatic moments by the orchestra along with the vocal lyricism of the singers. Given the
importance of the latter, why would a composer who does not consider melody a vital component of his style choose to write an opera? From 1966 to 1975, my
musical language was “avant-garde”, so to speak, avoiding obvious melodic lines. Thus, composing an opera was out of the question. Accordingly, my interest
in the musical drama expressed itself in the form of cantatas, in which narrators took the place of vocal soloists and choruses sang texturally, with guttural
effects rather than lyrically. During this period, I composed Maria Sabina (1969) (Naxos 8.570425) with a text by C.J. Cela, Las Moradas (1970), based on the
book by Santa Teresa of Avila, and No-Res (1974), a protest against death with text by Jean París.
In 1975, in search of a new dimension to my music, I incorporated true melody into my language, often supported by textures and experimental sounds typical of the previous decade. Homages to Casals and Sarasate for orchestra was the first of these compositions. Now, with the addition of lyrical melodies to my palette, composing operas made sense to
me. The cantata Torquemada (1980) was a prelude to the chamber opera Hangman, Hangman! (1982) (8.557090) in which lyrical lines are of importance, followed, in 1984 by the dramatic opera Zapata which used even more lyrical and folkloric ideas.
Cristóbal Colón is the culmination of that process. Free from preconceptions, the voices sing unrestricted lyrical lines. The orchestra, on the other hand, making
use of the techniques of previous decades, underlines the tensions of any given moment. Ethnic and medieval colours intermingle with avant-garde sonorities in a balance of two worlds in synthesis. Philosophically, it is this balance that I long for in our society: a reconciliation of past, present, and future.
Cristóbal Colón is the result of the idea and initiative of the promoter Aquiles Garcia Tuero and was brought to completion under the patronage of the
Sociedad Estatal Quinto Centenario, a government agency created for the celebration of the 500th anniversary of the discovery of America. The purpose of the opera was to commemorate, in an artistic way, that unprecedented historical event.
The opera was conceived in August 1984 during five intense days of planning with playwright Antonio Gala in Madrid. After that Gala wrote the text. While I was composing the music, we made changes from time to time in a spirit of respect and cooperation. A pile of sketches and manuscripts suggests a lot of revisions. Trips to Madrid, New York, Vienna, Barcelona, and Pamplona to go over the score with José Carreras and Montserrat Caballé, the principal singers, show that the opera was composed bearing in mind those artists.
The stage setting is the deck of the “Santa Maria”, captained by Columbus. The time of the action spans the departure from Palos and the arrival on American shores
culminating in a shout of “Land Ahoy!” and followed by an epilogue that draws moral and philosophical connections as well as giving a brief glimpse of the future.
Although the stage setting remains fixed, it is the characters who evoke a back and forth fluidity of time and place in the minds of the audience.
As the opera begins, the women on shore wave goodbye to their sailor men on deck. Although there is an undercurrent of fear of the unknown, Columbus and Pinzón pray for a happy voyage. The scene ends with Columbus ordering anchors aweigh.
The following scene flashes back a year to the Convent in La Rábida when the Franciscan Fray Antonio de Marchena brings Columbus and Pinzón together, both having independently conceived the daring enterprise. Columbus, recounting his past and his dreams of discovering a new route to the East, sings that there are “Lands to be discovered that call us”. We are transported to the domain of the Catholic Monarchs and hear King Fernando assure us that Aragón is sufficiently preoccupied with its enterprises in the Mediterranean while Queen Isabella explains that her priority is the conquest of Granada. And yet she shows a glimmer of interest in Columbus’s project (“While the King and I conquer Granada, the experts will hear your ideas and they will decide.”) The experts—an advisor, treasurer, general, scientist, and bishop—make negative
comments, while Columbus goes to and fro in an effort to persuade them, but the commissioners not only turn him down but brand him a madman. Back at the Convent at La Rábida, it is Pinzón who argues his case,
clarifying the origins of his ideas, a map he was given by a Cardinal from the Papal Court. Marchena is convinced by the two navigators’ plan and writes a letter to Isabella to solicit her backing. (A short interruption reminds us of the present moment as the sailors sing a merry song.) Then back in time, Columbus approaches the Throne of the Kings and presents the terms required for a successful enterprise. Recalling the burdens of the Granada conquest, Isabella laments “my coffers and people are exhausted…goodbye friend”; but she is contradicted by the King (“You are too cautious. Castile does not risk anything if nothing is discovered”). The Queen is convinced. She and Columbus give thanks to God “for He chose the hour and the moment in which we were to meet.”
We are briefly brought back to the harsh reality of the moment. On deck, the sailors plot, murmur their discontent and express their fears, but Pinzón assures them, drawing a picture of Andalusian colour. A brief but tense dispute between Columbus and Pinzón is resolved by Marchena’s intervention as the act concludes amidst singing and dancing.
The act’s opening serves as a brief reminder of the perspective of time, soon shifting back to the past as Columbus’s Jewish origins are recalled and he sees images of his people “expelled and being shipped midst tears” while a pilgrimage of Jews crosses the stage to a desolate song. Once again, time is mirrored in a triple leave-taking: the women of Palos bidding farewell to their men, the Jews to their homeland, and Columbus to his mistress, Beatriz, in Córdoba.
His reverie is soon interrupted by an angry Pinzón demanding a change of course and informing Columbus of the crew’s near rebellion. The captain accedes, ordering a change of course to the southeast. That done, he resumes his dreams of the past but they are again broken in on by the increasingly rebellious crew (“Let’s get rid of the Foreigner!’). Columbus is given two days to sight land or the ships will return homeward. In deep desolation, Columbus reverts to dreaming of a brighter past. He hears the surreal voice of Beatriz singing a lullaby to their little son but also cannot fail to hear the intrusively threatening voices of the sailors. All seems lost when, on the second day, shouts of “Land Ahoy!” are heard.
In a kind of epilogue, high-pitched violins and bird sounds suggest another world, a world in which a choir of Indians contrasts with the larger chorus that symbolizes all of humanity. There are prayers of thanksgiving but also intimations of an uncertain future. Five hundred years have passed and the most that mankind has to cling to is hope.
The sequel to this opera, Leonardo Balada’s La Muerte de Colón (Death of Columbus), spans the period from the return from the Indies to Columbus’s death in Valladolid. This recording is scheduled for release on Naxos 8.660193–94.
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