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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'.
Commissioned to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Columbus's voyage to America, this opera came at an important stylistic juncture in the career of the Spanish/American composer Leonardo Balada. When it was written (1984-86), he was in the process of incorporating a nationalistic element into his previous atonal language, a folk influence with its own tonal overtones. The medium of opera had been out of bounds for him, but now Balada found it the perfect vehicle to express his new synthesized creative approach. In one way, tonal melodies and recognizable rhythms were mandatory for a big public commission of this size, particularly since operatic superstars Caballé and Carreras were attached to the project from the beginning. Balada spent time with the two singers during the compositional process, and I can only assume they lobbied hard to secure their sympathetic and occasionally grandiose solo moments.
The result is grand opera in the heroic mold: a large-scale work, notable for its declamatory solos and full choruses, underpinned by a colorful, modernist orchestra. A motoric orchestral prelude soon gives way to a celebratory chorale, as the action of the opera is framed by the embarkation of Columbus's fleet at the beginning and the exultant sighting of land at the end. In between, the protagonist's background and the events surrounding the voyage are covered in flashback. The drama in the first act centers on the fact that Columbus's quest was less of a priority with Isabella's court than the conquest of Granada. In the second act, the crisis is the sailors' growing trepidation over their destination and their fear of unknown territory, which manifests itself in an anti-Semitic attack on Columbus (who had Jewish ancestry). Just as things are getting a touch mutinous, land is sighted and all is well.
Balada's setting of the libretto by Antonio Gala responds impressively to the specific emotional temperature of each episode, be it philosophical and introverted or public and declamatory. What he fails to do is give an identifiably maritime flavor to the action: while Columbus spends a certain amount of time lost on the infinite sea (as it were), the composer shows none of Britten's ability to depict that wide, deep vastness. Balada's opera is entirely about human endeavor, not the natural world. It remains a pièce d'occasion, albeit a confident and enjoyable one.
This recording comes from the premiere performances, reflecting the detailed preparation that went into the project. Chorus and orchestra perform their unfamiliar music with panache and what seems like great accuracy--I have no score--while Balada's distinguished soloists make the most of everything they are given. La Caballé is in great voice and floats her high pianissimo to advantage on several occasions. She brings warmth to the otherwise distant role of the Queen. Carreras may be accused of pushing his essentially lyric tenor into a less comfortable heroic mold, thereby producing a wide vibrato at peak dramatic moments, but his is a strong and well-sustained performance. The two singers blend beautifully in the piano ending of their act I duet. The live recording is well balanced, clear, and free of extraneous noise.
Balada composed a sequel to this work, La muerte de Colón ("The Death of Columbus"); a recording is scheduled to appear in due course. Recommended, especially at the bargain price, for anyone whose interest has been piqued by Naxos's promotion of this colorful and accessible contemporary composer. -- Fanfare, Phillip Scott, Jan-Feb 2010
|1. Cristóbal Colón, opera: Act 1. Scene 3. Coro de marineros|
|2. Cristóbal Colón, opera: Act 1. Scene 4a. El trono de los Reyes iluminado|
|3. Cristóbal Colón, opera: Act 1. Scene 4b. Aria. Ahora comprendo|
|4. Cristóbal Colón, opera: Act 1. Scene 4c. Demasiado sensata|