, January 2005
"The Spanish-born Leonardo Balada (b. 1933) studied at Juilliard with Persichetti and Copland, and has taught composition at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh since 1970. These two "tragi-comic chamber operas" represent a fusion of Balada's self-described "avant-garde" style and a more traditional melody-based approach, a blend which, the composer says in the notes, he felt would be well-suited for opera. The evidence provided by these charming, quirky pieces certainly supports this claim. Balada's modernist background definitely shows, but the vocal writing, though short on conventional arias, has distinct melodic appeal. Additionally, there's a strong rhythmic verve to much of the music, and, best of all, a sharp sense of humor, often expressed in the gleefully irreverent orchestrations. Both pieces are scored for a Stravinskian chamber ensemble of eight players-it is, in fact, the L'Histoire du Soldat instrumentation, plus piano. Balada has obviously learned lessons of clarity and economy from the Russian master, but the mocking high spirits also call to mind Poulenc and, among living composers, Thomas Adès.
Hangman, Hangman!, set to Balada's own libretto, tells the story of Johnny (the appealingly earnest James Longmire), who, accused as a horse thief, is about to be hanged before an angry crowd. Johnny begs to delay his execution for the arrival of his mother and father, both of whom, instead of bringing ransom money, turn out to be eager to witness the hanging themselves. Next to arrive is his Sweetheart, who, though broke, sings genuinely of her love for Johnny. (This strangely beautiful aria is rendered with elegant, understated artistry by Natalya Kraevsky.) This is enough to stir the emotions of a rich Irishman who, coincidentally enough, has just bought the entire town. He pays for Johnny's release, and appoints him his own personal deputy. In the disjointed, self-ridiculing finale, everyone vies to be Johnny's friend now that he's rich. The Town of Greed is a sequel, taking place twenty years later, with the same characters as besotted as ever with avarice. Johnny is now a successful businessman, but boom turns to bust, the townspeople turn on him once again, and he is executed after all, shot by a Wall Street Man. There is moralizing aplenty in the air (people are hypocritical, power corrupts, consumerism is evil), but thanks to Balada's skillful comic touch, the result is enormously entertaining rather than preachy. Vocal and instrumental performances are on a very high level; the Carnegie Mellon Contemporary Ensemble, under Colman Pearce, plays the difficult score with lots of character and great authority. All in all, an impressive calling card for Carnegie Mellon Opera Theater, as well as for the University's resident composer."