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Michael Mark
American Record Guide, January 2010

BALADA, L.: Cristobal Colon (Christopher Columbus) [Opera] (Carreras, Caballe, Gran Teatre del Liceu, Alcantara) 8.660237–38

BALADA, L.: Muerte de Colon (La) (Death of Columbus) [Opera] (J. Garrison, J. Jenkins, Carnegie Mellon Philharmonic and Repertory Chorus, R. Page) 8.660193–94

These recordings arrived October 5. What a way to celebrate Columbus Day! These are two very interesting operas that I would very much like to hear and see. This is my first acquaintance with Leonardo Balada’s music. (These are part of a Balada series on Naxos.) Balada (born 1933) is a graduate of his native Barcelona’s Conservatorio del Liceu and Juilliard. His teachers have included Vincent Persichetti, Aaron Copland, and Igor Markevitch. He has been Professor of Composition at Carnegie Mellon University since 1970.

Cristóbal Colón (1984-86) and La Muerte de Colón (1992-93, revised in 1996, libretto by Balada) are his first operas. They go back and forth in mostly brief scenes between the past, present, and future. Cristóbal Colón centers on Columbus’s efforts to get his voyage to the New World off the ground—and his personal life. His mistress, Beatriz Enriquez, with whom he had two children, has a brief but prominent role in both operas. Both works have choruses of Indians. Isabella has a baptize-them-don’t-harm-them attitude. Colón ends in triumph: Columbus’s return to Spain. La Muerte begins with Columbus on his death bed reliving the past, dealing with his present, and witnessing future events. Columbus is in a sense two characters in La Muerte: himself and his conscience in the form of the Mysterious Stranger.

In Cristóbal Colón Balada isn’t afraid of melody. The opera contains very lyrical, singable passages that alternate with avant-garde sonorities, huge orchestral outbursts (stay near your volume control), plus ethnic and medieval-like passages. The 1989 performance recording’s stars are probably as good as it can get for Columbus and Isabella. Both Carreras (in his early 40s) and Caballé (in her late 50s) had seen better days vocally, but their voices are still attractive, and they convey the necessary drama and authority. Carlos Chausson, portraying a kind of right-hand man to Columbus, is a vivid personality with a strong baritone. It’s hard to believe he has to his credit an amusing portrayal of Rossini’s Bartolo. The cast has no weak spots. Victoria Vergara makes the most of her brief part with a beautiful, sultry sound as Beatriz. Conducting, orchestral playing, and the chorus sound topnotch.

I’m not as enthusiastic about La Muerte. Balada has abandoned the flattering-to-the ear lyricism of Colón. The contemporary sounds of that opera are also present here, along with too many orchestral outbursts that suggest Balada is showing off his musical skills for their own sake. Some electronic sounds near the end are jarring to my ears. The 2005 performance is a fine one. Jon Garrison’s basically lyric voice is up to his role; he adds in a lot of vocal shading and dramatic expression. Judith Jenkins might not have quite the presence of Caballé but nonetheless scores high points for attractive, authoritative singing. Baritone David Okerlund is suitably spooky and dark-voiced as the Mysterious Stranger, and the rest of the performers have been well chosen. That includes the excellent chorus and one of the finest university orchestras I’ve heard in recent years.

Both sets come with texts and translations (not all Naxos operas do), background notes, plot synopses, and cast bios.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, September 2009

La Muerte de Colon comes as the sequel to Leonardo Balada’s opera, Cristobal Colón, issued on Naxos last month [8.660237–38]. With an ironical twist, Cristobal Colón, dealing with Columbus’s arrival in North America came from a live performance given in Spain, his return and death in his Spanish homeland is here recorded in the United States with an American cast. The operas share the use of flashbacks so that in Cristobal Colón it returned to Queen Isabella in Spain, here we go back to his time among the indigenous Indians. They equally share the composer’s mix of tonality and atonality, his modern view on the concept of melody being the major ingredient. It is quite a short work, and in fairness I have to say that those who are no more adventurous than Puccini would find it very hard going. At times the libretto is unbelievably sanctimonious regarding the indigenous Americans and their suffering at the hands of the marauding European invaders. The role of Columbus—who dominates the score—is in the safe hands of the much experienced Jon Garrison, a tenor who has made over two hundred appearances at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Rather less well-known on the international circuit is the strong voiced soprano, Judith Jenkins, who makes a suitably imposing Isabella, and the outstanding David Okerlund as the Mysterious Character who appears in Columbus’s dream scenes. The orchestra is formed by college students from around the States, while the chorus comes from the Carnegie Mellon University. Neither appear anything other than thoroughly professional, the much experienced conductor, Robert Page, holds together some rhythmically tricky passages. The recording follows on the work’s premiere in Pittsburgh, January 2005, with solo voices balanced well forward, but much orchestral detail is on offer.

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