These "Cartoon" tragic-comic operas in one
act, as the composer has them, are appropriately scored for limited
instrumental forces such as those of Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s
Tale, but draw several spoken parts, a narrator and a chamber
chorus into the bargain. As befits their subtitle, the story told in
these chamber operas is generally quite simple, at times verging on
caricature and "Western" clichés.
Hangman, Hangman! Tells the story of
Johnny whom the Sheriff and the townspeople want to hang for having
stolen a horse. Johnny keeps delaying his hanging by calling on his
mother, his father and his sweetheart. Unsuccessfully. His mother has
no money and has just come to see him executed. His father has no money
either and has just come for the hanging. The sweetheart has no money
but she sings of her love for Johnny. Her song moves a quite improbable
Deus ex machina, an Irishman who has bought the town and the
adjoining land. He pays for Johnny’s ransom and decides to make him
his deputy. The townspeople acclaim Johnny.
The Town of Greed: the same characters
some twenty years later. Johnny has become a successful businessman
selling anything to anybody: arms, petrol, uranium, etc. The libretto
expresses some ironic and sarcastic criticism of the present-day business
world and of the way businesses may be run. Johnny’s father, mother
and sweetheart are regularly sent abroad to negotiate many profitable
contracts. All is well; but, as time goes by, problems arise: wells
are empty, the factories are closed, and the townspeople blame Johnny
for their difficulties. Another Deus ex machina (this time, a
Wall Street banker) orders Johnny to be hung. Johnny tries to delay
the execution but is shot dead by the Wall Street banker. The townspeople,
however, decide to cryogenise Johnny’s body and brain so that they may
be "re-activated" later if needed.
The librettos of these chamber operas are deliberately
full of clichés and of pastiche or parody, though that of The
Town of Greed has an added social dimension. The problem thus
is to find some convincing way of setting them to music. Many possibilities
exist: either the music keeps "mickeying" the words or it
may attempt at something else, e.g. underplaying the clichés
by being utterly serious. While listening to these works, I kept thinking
of Francis Poulenc who once wrote about the way his Bal Masqué
should be ideally sung. The humour is in the words and the music should
be sung in all earnestness. No need for grimace on the singer’s part.
Indeed, musical comedy is probably quite difficult to achieve successfully,
i.e. in satisfying terms, i.e. both musically and dramatically. I must
say that I approached this release with much trepidation, but was finally
somewhat disappointed by what I heard. As in many 20th Century
operas, I find that too many fine opportunities are lost. There are
almost no arias although the librettos provided many such opportunities.
Johnny’s sweetheart is the only character to be allowed some sort of
aria in each opera: In Hangman when she sings of her love
for Johnny and in The Town of Greed when she sings of
her sadness at being childless. The ever busy instrumental ensemble
does not help either in creating some sort of atmosphere. A pity because
many fine things could have been made of these simple, but well written
librettos. I think that the main problem lies in the way they have been
set, for the performances are vividly sung and played, and everyone
concerned seems to enjoy his- or herself enormously.
NAXOS have already released several CDs of Balada’s
orchestral music which, I confess, I have not heard; but I will live
in faith till I have been able to hear more of his music.