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Leonardo BALADA (b. 1933)
Cristóbal Colón (Christopher Columbus) (1984-1986)
José Carreras (tenor) - Cristóbal Cólon; Montserrat Caballé (soprano) - Queen Isabella; Carlos Chausson (baritone) - Martin Alonso Pinzón; Luis Álvarez (baritone) - Padre Fray Antonio de Marchena; Stefano Palatchi (bass) - King Fernando; Miguel Solá (baritone) - Advisor; Juan Pedro García Márquez (bass) - Treasurer; Jesús Sanz Remiro (bass) - General; Gregorio Poblador (bass) - Scientist; Miguel López Galindo (bass) - Bishop; Victoria Vergara (mezzo) - Beatriz Enriquez; Antonio Lluch (tenor) - Rodrigo de Triana; Orchestra and Chorus of the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona/Theo Alcántara
rec. live, Gran Teatro del Liceu, Barcelona, Spain, 24-29 September 1989
The Spanish libretto and an English translation are included in the booklet
NAXOS 8.660237-38 [64:52 + 47:45]
Experience Classicsonline

It was on 3 August 1492 that Christopher Columbus (Cristóbal Colón in Spanish) set out from Palos del Frontera in the Province of Huelva in south-western Spain on his flagship Santa Maria, accompanied by Niña and Pinta. After a stop on the Canary Islands for reparations, he continued the voyage on 6 September and after many hardships they reached the New World on 12 October. The voyage with opposition from the crew and other problems is the main storyline in Leonardo Balada’s opera Cristóbal Colón, but also the long struggle before the expedition could be realised, hostility, suspicion, hope, despair, is part of the opera in the shape of numerous flashbacks. Balada started the work in August 1984 and the premiere was on 24 September 1989. This and the following performances were recorded and the present recording was edited from that material.

In his liner-notes Balada says that during the period 1966 to 1975 his musical language was avant-garde. To him ‘the important elements in opera are the identification of dramatic moments by the orchestra along with the vocal lyricism of the singers’, so ‘why would a composer who doesn’t consider melody a vital component of his style choose to write an opera?’ But things changed and after a cantata and a chamber opera in the beginning of the 1980s, followed by the full length opera Zapata in 1984, where even folklore ideas were employed he felt ready for the challenge to write Cristóbal Colón, initiated by Aquiles Garcia Tuero and supported by a government agency created for the celebration of the 500th anniversary of the discovery of America.

The opera opens with rhythmic, repetitive music and throughout the two hours we are immersed in a tremendously powerful score, where especially the many choral scenes are impressive and varied. The first act finale (CD 1 tr. 12) builds up to an orgiastic dance that is one of the real highlights of the opera. In contrast to this the second act opens with bleak and ill-foreboding music, leading over to a dialogue between Pinzón and Columbus, both looking back to the homeland - but for different reasons. Pinzón searches in vain for his white village; Columbus expresses hope ‘because we have left so many things behind in our homeland’. It is a fascinating score and the reciprocal action between present and past is dramatically effective and illuminating.

Though it is composed as a constant flow of music, it is still traditional insofar as there are arias and duets, choruses and ensembles. Many of these are melodically attractive, thus Columbus’s first aria (CD 1 tr. 2) is a fine piece which Carreras manages to round off with a lovely pianissimo. In the second act (CD 2 tr. 8) he also has a reflective aria of great beauty. Queen Isabella also has several fine solo opportunities and the aria that follows her dialogue with her husband, King Fernando, in the first act (CD 1 tr. 3) is beautiful and has clear Spanish flavour; the lyrical Now I understand that it is not good to make a man wait (CD 1 tr. 8) is even lovelier and she also has a very beautiful aria in act II (CD 2 tr. 6).

But it is not primarily the lyric music, however beautiful, that makes this work an engrossing experience; it is rather the tension and intensity that never lets the concentration slacken. The end of the opera is a thriller, with an intense build up of the sailors’ chorus, where they attack Columbus, who has promised to turn back if they don’t see land: Today is the deadline!, the climax followed by distant shouts of Tierra! (Land!)

The epilogue is glorious with prayers of thanksgiving, with light and jubilation. And in the midst of all this Columbus proudly announces: This is the launching site for new trips and for strange navies that will lift their flights above ground. And Isabella declares: Here all of humanity begins in history.

The only thing I regret about this recording is that it wasn’t possible to see the production as well. The sound is a bit uneven, as often is the case with live recordings of grand operas, but this doesn’t matter much. The orchestra and chorus are impressive and there is a great deal of excellent solo singing. Carlos Chausson executes Pinzón’s great monologue (CD 1 tr. 12) with dramatic intensity and glorious tone. Stefano Palatchi is an authoritative Fernando and Victoria Vergara sports a fine mezzo-soprano voice as Beatrix, making the duet with Columbus in act II (CD 2 tr. 4) another highlight of the performance: a sublime scene of romantic lyrical beauty.

Concerning the two central characters, Columbus and Isabella, it has to be said that by 1989 both José Carreras and Montserrat Caballé were past their zenith, but being two of the greatest opera stars during the last third of the 20th century they never let the performance down. The bloom of the voice, that made Carreras rise to stardom in the 1970s, was long gone but the wholehearted involvement, which always characterized his singing, is as strongly felt as ever and when not putting too much pressure on the voice his singing is often attractive. His heroic singing in the finale still produces goose-skin on the listener.

Montserrat Caballé initially sounds rather strained with heavy vibrato, but she soon recovers and in the second act aria (CD 2 tr. 6) she aptly demonstrates that she is still capable of producing an ethereal pianissimo. Goose-skin again!

The well produced booklet has a quite detailed synopsis and the full libretto in Spanish with English translation. Full marks to Naxos!

I have had several opportunities lately to review relatively new - even brand new - operas, both live and recorded, and it delights me that opera is not only alive but seems perfectly healthy. In my review pile at the moment there is a sequel to the present one, The Death of Columbus, which I am looking forward to hear. While waiting for that review I would urge readers to try the present work. It has a lot to offer.

Göran Forsling 



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