> Leonardo BALADA [HC]: Classical CD Reviews- Nov 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Leonardo BALADA (born 1933)
Hangman, Hangman! (1982)
The Town of Greed (1997)
James Longmire (tenor), Johnny; Natalya Kraevsky (soprano), Sweetheart; Elizabeth Sederburg (contralto), the Mother; Robert Fire (bass), the Father; Patrick Jacobs (baritone), the Sheriff; Stephen Neely (bass), Hangman; Pittsburgh Camerata; Carnegie Mellon Contemporary Ensemble;
Coleman Pearce
Recorded: Kresge Recital Hall, Carnegie Mellon University, Pennsylvania, April 2001
NAXOS 8.557090 [76:59]


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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.

Hubert Culot

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