Review By Glyn Pursglove,MusicWeb International,May 2010
Balada was born in Barcelona and went on to study composition in the USA with Vincent Persichetti and Aaron Copland, before teaching composition at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh from 1970. With that background there is something wholly fitting in his taking Columbus’s first journey of discovery as an operatic subject. Balada has been well represented on Naxos in recent years, and those discs have revealed the considerable stylistic shifts in his work. By the time he came to write Cristóbal Cólon—the opera was, the composer tells us in his booklet note, “conceived in August 1984 during five intense days of planning with playwright Antonio Gala in Madrid” and was eventually premiered in 1989—Balada had, in his own words,
The explicit action of the libretto by Antonio Gala (b.1936) is set on board the deck of the Santa María, the flagship of Columbus’s small fleet (made up of two further ships) on his first voyage to the Americas. It opens at the departure from Palos de la Frontera and ends with arrival in sight of America, the last words of the main body of the opera (there is also a striking Epilogue) being an excited cry at the sighting of land: “Tiiieeeeerrrrraaaaa”. Though the physical action is thus quite narrowly circumscribed, at least superficially, the words and thoughts of the characters generate much retrospective narrative enactment and some anticipations, in both fear and hope, of the future.
Given what it seeks to encompass—the political dimension of the voyage, the relationship of Ferdinand and Isabella, Columbus’ Jewish origins and the expulsion of the Jews from Andalusia, the love between Columbus and his mistress Beatriz Enríquez de Arana, the struggle to obtain funding for the voyager, the rivalry between Columbus and Martín Alonso Pinzón, the rebelliousness of the sailors and the rigours of the voyage, the conquest of Granada, and much more—the libretto is inevitably somewhat episodic and doesn’t allow scope for the psychological development of any of its characters. Gala’s libretto, which makes direct quotation from historical sources, sometimes sacrifices dramatic power to the desire to impart information. It is, I suspect, the over-ambitious inclusiveness of the work which finally limits its impact.
There is plenty of expressive vocal writing here, often accompanied by orchestral textures and rhythms which exist in a slightly oblique—but generally telling—relationship to the vocal lines. Balada’s orchestral writing remembers his own ‘avant-garde’ musical past, as well as echoing both Spanish and American folk idioms and finding room for historically appropriate late medieval-early Renaissance touches and some echoes of operatic verismo. The choral writing is consistently impressive, full of power but with some delicacy and subtlety too.
Carreras give a fully committed performance and the often-present sense of strain in his voice largely ‘works’ as part of the characterisation of Columbus, expressive of his anxiety and fear, his near despair and his eventual triumph. There is a muscular heroism to much of Carreras’s singing—notably at the opera’s close—but he also brings a persuasive inwardness to his interpretation of the aria ‘¿En dónde está la voluntad de Dios?’ a piece of soul-searching as Columbus fears failure. Caballé isn’t altogether convincing in her earliest contributions, but afterwards sounds every inch a queen, bringing out the melodic side of Balada’s writing with more consistency than Carreras. Arias such as ‘Ahora comprendo’ and ‘¡Almirante!’ have great vocal authority and dramatic presence. When the two principals share the duet ‘Caballero seréis’ it sounds as much like a (neo-)romantic love duet as a moment of political decision, but is none the worse for that. Elsewhere Carlos Chausson is a consistently interesting and well-sung Pinzón; Victoria Vergara makes some impressive contributions as Beatriz, and her Act II duet (‘Te conocí una tarde’) with Carreras’s Columbus is one of the highlights of the opera, a love duet almost Puccini-like in some of its vocal lines.
What is perhaps the most striking music comes at the very end of the work. An eight-minute epilogue blends the choric voices of the Indians, on the one hand, and the Spanish sailors on the other, with those of Columbus, Isabella and Marchena. Here Balada’s stylistic eclecticism, with its imitation of birdsong, its deployment of relatively lush string textures, its echoing of rhythms from the music of the native American Indians, and much else, complements the libretto perfectly. The text evokes the moment of landing in terms both of a clash of cultures, with the arrival of a Christianity intent on converting the new peoples it finds, and of future human exploration and in Columbus’s recognition that here is “la plataforma para los nuevos viajes y para naves extrañas que elevarán sus vuelos de la tierra” (the launching site for new voyages and for strange ships that will lift their flights above the ground).
The recorded sound is generally good—no better or worse than one generally encounters in live opera recordings. The work of the orchestra and chorus of Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu (only just up Las Ramblas from the city’s monument to Columbus) acquit themselves well, and none of the soloists let the side down. And yet…the overall conception of the work, its attempted scope, and the construction of a libretto in terms appropriate for such ambitions, has resulted in a lack of dramatic tension in places, and of a fully cogent organic unity. There is a prevailing sense of the episodic and, while most of the episodes are of interest and some of them have considerable power, one misses that overriding atmosphere of musical or dramatic necessity, of the kind of compulsion which dictates what must come next. The experience—at least when heard, rather than seen in the opera house—is of often striking parts rather than a fully satisfying whole. Even so, anyone with an interest in contemporary opera should certainly make the acquaintance of Cristóbal Colón.
Review By Göran Forsling,MusicWeb International,November 2009
It was on 3 August 1492 that Christopher Columbus (Cristóbal Colón in Spanish) set out from Palos del Frontera in the Province of Huelva in south-western Spain on his flagship Santa Maria, accompanied by Niña and Pinta. After a stop on the Canary Islands for reparations, he continued the voyage on 6 September and after many hardships they reached the New World on 12 October. The voyage with opposition from the crew and other problems is the main storyline in Leonardo Balada’s opera Cristóbal Colón, but also the long struggle before the expedition could be realised, hostility, suspicion, hope, despair, is part of the opera in the shape of numerous flashbacks. Balada started the work in August 1984 and the premiere was on 24
In his liner-notes Balada says that during the period 1966 to 1975 his musical language was avant-garde. To him ‘the important elements in opera are the identification of dramatic moments by the orchestra along with the vocal lyricism of the singers’, so ‘why would a composer who doesn’t consider melody a vital component of his style choose to write an opera?’ But things changed and after a cantata and a chamber opera in the beginning of the 1980s, followed by the full length opera Zapata in 1984, where even folklore ideas were employed he felt ready for the challenge to write Cristóbal Colón, initiated by Aquiles Garcia Tuero and supported by a government agency created for the celebration of the 500th anniversary of the discovery of America.
The opera opens with rhythmic, repetitive music and throughout the two hours we are immersed in a tremendously powerful score, where especially the many choral scenes are impressive and varied. The first act finale (CD 1 tr. 12) builds up to an orgiastic dance that is one of the real highlights of the opera. In contrast to this the second act opens with bleak and ill-foreboding music, leading over to a dialogue between Pinzón and Columbus, both looking back to the homeland—but for different reasons. Pinzón searches in vain for his white village; Columbus expresses hope ‘because we have left so many things behind in our homeland’. It is a fascinating score and the reciprocal action between present and past is dramatically effective and illuminating.
Though it is composed as a constant flow of music, it is still traditional insofar as there are arias and duets, choruses and ensembles. Many of these are melodically attractive, thus Columbus’s first aria (CD 1 tr. 2) is a fine piece which Carreras manages to round off with a lovely pianissimo. In the second act (CD 2 tr. 8) he also has a reflective aria of great beauty. Queen Isabella also has several fine solo opportunities and the aria that follows her dialogue with her husband, King Fernando, in the first act (CD 1 tr. 3) is beautiful and has clear Spanish flavour; the lyrical Now I understand that it is not good to make a man wait (CD 1 tr. 8) is even lovelier and she also has a very beautiful aria in act II (CD 2 tr. 6).
But it is not primarily the lyric music, however beautiful, that makes this work an engrossing experience; it is rather the tension and intensity that never lets the concentration slacken. The end of the opera is a thriller, with an intense build up of the sailors’ chorus, where they attack Columbus, who has promised to turn back if they don’t see land: Today is the deadline!, the climax followed by distant shouts of Tierra! (Land!)
The epilogue is glorious with prayers of thanksgiving, with light and jubilation. And in the midst of all this Columbus proudly announces: This is the launching site for new trips and for strange navies that will lift their flights above ground. And Isabella declares: Here all of humanity begins in history.
The only thing I regret about this recording is that it wasn’t possible to see the production as well. The sound is a bit uneven, as often is the case with live recordings of grand operas, but this doesn’t matter much. The orchestra and chorus are impressive and there is a great deal of excellent solo singing. Carlos Chausson executes Pinzón’s great monologue (CD 1 tr. 12) with dramatic intensity and glorious tone. Stefano Palatchi is an authoritative Fernando and Victoria Vergara sports a fine mezzo-soprano voice as Beatrix, making the duet with Columbus in act II (CD 2 tr. 4) another highlight of the performance: a sublime scene of romantic lyrical beauty.
Concerning the two central characters, Columbus and Isabella, it has to be said that by 1989 both José Carreras and Montserrat Caballé were past their zenith, but being two of the greatest opera stars during the last third of the 20th century they never let the performance down. The bloom of the voice, that made Carreras rise to stardom in the 1970s, was long gone but the wholehearted involvement, which always characterized his singing, is as strongly felt as ever and when not putting too much pressure on the voice his singing is often attractive. His heroic singing in the finale still produces goose-skin on the listener.
Montserrat Caballé initially sounds rather strained with heavy vibrato, but she soon recovers and in the second act aria (CD 2 tr. 6) she aptly demonstrates that she is still capable of producing an ethereal pianissimo. Goose-skin again!
The well produced booklet has a quite detailed synopsis and the full libretto in Spanish with English translation. Full marks to Naxos!
I have had several opportunities lately to review relatively new—even brand new—operas, both live and recorded, and it delights me that opera is not only alive but seems perfectly healthy. In my review pile at the moment there is a sequel to the present one, The Death of Columbus, which I am looking forward to hear. While waiting for that review I would urge readers to try the present work. It has a lot to offer.