Leonardo BALADA (b. 1933)
La Muerte de Colón (1992-1993, rev. 1996)
Jon Garrison (tenor) - Cristobal Colón; Judith Jenkins (soprano) - Queen Isabella; Katherine Mueller (mezzo) - Beatrix Enriquez; David Okerlund (baritone) - Mysterious Character; Arturo Martin (tenor) - Margarit/Hernando/Vespucci; Dimitrie Lazich (baritone) - Aguado/Diego/Magellan; Raymond Blackwell (baritone) - Friar Boil/Diego/Zapata; Milutin Lazich (bass) - Bobadilla/Bartholomew/Bolivar; Brent Stater (bass) - King Ferdinand; Katy Shackleton-Williams (soprano) - Indian Voice; Members of the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon Philharmonic and Repertory Chorus/Robert Page
rec. Carnegie Music Hall, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA, 16-19 January 2005
Spanish libretto and English translation enclosed
NAXOS 8.660193-4 [50:10 + 44:15]

Balada’s opera Cristóbal Colón, written in the mid-1980s and premiered in September 1989 with Montserrat Caballé and José Carreras as Queen Isabella and Cristóbal Colón, was followed about a decade later by this sequel, Death of Columbus. Basically the later opera has the same layout with a number of relatively short scenes, in this case interspersed with recurring visits to Colón’s death-bed, the scenes being flash-backs and even flash-forwards. In the death-bed scenes a Mysterious Character is omnipresent - a personification of Colón’s bad conscience. He often expresses himself in recitative or in plain speech. In the background a chorus of monks sing Ave verum corpus, which also is the first thing we hear in the opera - after an ominous timpani roll.

As in the predecessor the choral music is always fresh, rhythmically incisive and suggestive, and Balada differentiates well the elegiac death-bed scenes opposite the ‘public’ scenes, filled with overt drama. There is some slight exoticism in the Indian scenes: an Indian woman singing beautiful and rather sad vocalises (CD 1 tr. 3), a group of Indians in the following scene, more aggressive and ecstatic, and, a musical highlight, the danza, that opens act II (CD 2 tr. 1) - powerful and defiant.

The central theme in the opera is the accusations from the surrounding world against Colón: his failure to obey orders, his maltreatment of the Indians, his neglect of his beloved Beatrix and in a kind of imaginary sequence Colón encounters the real heroes, who really did something conclusive: Vespucci, Magellan, Bolívar and Zapata. It is indeed a horrifying tale, a man becoming immortal in his lifetime , thanks no doubt to his visions and stubbornness, but who in the end, in the final scene Forgive me! is deeply touching, when he turns to God and ‘all of you whom I have disappointed’ and asks for forgiveness. And his lasts words, in the opera as well as reportedly in real life, are Into your hands, O Lord, I command my spirit.

The musical language is rather tonal in the vocal parts, considerably harsher in the orchestra without being forbidding. This is powerful and often atmospheric orchestral writing and in the final scene there are also inserted recorded fragments from the previous opera and electronic sounds, conveying the impression of everything - the world of Colón - is falling to pieces. As a composition this work is possibly more unified than its predecessor but I still prefer Cristóbal Colón for its more overtly dramatic approach and greater individuality. There are also more memorable ‘numbers’ there. But also this opera has great individual moments: the scene Beloved ones! (CD 2 tr. 3), where the two women who meant so much to Colón, Beatrix and Isabella, accuse him out of different points of view and their voices blend in a beautiful duet; also the final scene, where Jon Garrison rises to formidable vocal and dramatic heights. His voice has some similarities with José Carreras’s - who sang the role in the first opera. Judith Jenkins’s Isabella and Katherine Mueller’s Beatrix are also great assets to this recording, and so is David Okerlund as the Mysterious Character: impressive and expressive.

Robert Page has done an admirable job with his choral and orchestral forces - this is definitely not easy-to-perform music - and the recording team have ensured that the vocal and orchestral textures are well reproduced.

I am not sure that this opera - or its predecessor - will enter the canon of repertoire works, and thus these recordings will probably be the only way of hearing them. Readers who have already tried and liked Cristóbal Colón, should definitely give this sequel a chance as well. Those not yet under the spell of Balada are advised to try Cristóbal Colón first.

Göran Forsling