Balada was born in Barcelona and went on to
study composition in the USA with Vincent Persichetti and Aaron
Copland, before teaching composition at Carnegie Mellon University
in Pittsburgh from 1970. With that background there is something
wholly fitting in his taking Columbus’s first journey of discovery
as an operatic subject. Balada has been well represented on Naxos
in recent years, and those discs have revealed the considerable
stylistic shifts in his work. By the time he came to write Cristóbal
– the opera was, the composer tells us in his booklet
note, “conceived in August 1984 during five intense days of planning
with playwright Antonio Gala in Madrid” and was eventually premiered
in 1989 – Balada had, in his own words, “incorporated true melody”
into a musical language which had hitherto been committed to the
avant-garde. In truth, though there are some fine lyrical and
melodic passages here, there is also plenty of music which owes
audible debts to the idiom of Balada’s earlier music. Stylistic
variation and interplay, indeed, is one of the pleasures of a
work which intrigues and stimulates, thrills and occasionally
moves, but perhaps falls just short of fully satisfying the listener.
The explicit action of the libretto by Antonio Gala (b.1936) is set on board the deck of the Santa María, the flagship of Columbus’s small fleet (made up of two further ships) on his first voyage to the Americas. It opens at the departure from Palos de la Frontera and ends with arrival in sight of America, the last words of the main body of the opera (there is also a striking Epilogue) being an excited cry at the sighting of land: “Tiiieeeeerrrrraaaaa”. Though the physical action is thus quite narrowly circumscribed, at least superficially, the words and thoughts of the characters generate much retrospective narrative enactment and some anticipations, in both fear and hope, of the future.
Given what it seeks to encompass – the political dimension of the voyage, the relationship of Ferdinand and Isabella, Columbus’ Jewish origins and the expulsion of the Jews from Andalusia, the love between Columbus and his mistress Beatriz Enríquez de Arana, the struggle to obtain funding for the voyager, the rivalry between Columbus and Martín Alonso Pinzón, the rebelliousness of the sailors and the rigours of the voyage, the conquest of Granada, and much more – the libretto is inevitably somewhat episodic and doesn’t allow scope for the psychological development of any of its characters. Gala’s libretto, which makes direct quotation from historical sources, sometimes sacrifices dramatic power to the desire to impart information. It is, I suspect, the over-ambitious inclusiveness of the work which finally limits its impact.
There is plenty of expressive vocal writing here, often accompanied by orchestral textures and rhythms which exist in a slightly oblique – but generally telling - relationship to the vocal lines. Balada’s orchestral writing remembers his own ‘avant-garde’ musical past, as well as echoing both Spanish and American folk idioms and finding room for historically appropriate late medieval-early Renaissance touches and some echoes of operatic verismo. The choral writing is consistently impressive, full of power but with some delicacy and subtlety too.
Carreras give a fully committed performance and the often-present sense of strain in his voice largely ‘works’ as part of the characterisation of Columbus, expressive of his anxiety and fear, his near despair and his eventual triumph. There is a muscular heroism to much of Carreras’s singing - notably at the opera’s close - but he also brings a persuasive inwardness to his interpretation of the aria ‘¿En dónde está la voluntad de Dios?’ a piece of soul-searching as Columbus fears failure. Caballé isn’t altogether convincing in her earliest contributions, but afterwards sounds every inch a queen, bringing out the melodic side of Balada’s writing with more consistency than Carreras. Arias such as ‘Ahora comprendo’ and ‘¡Almirante!’ have great vocal authority and dramatic presence. When the two principals share the duet ‘Caballero seréis’ it sounds as much like a (neo-)romantic love duet as a moment of political decision, but is none the worse for that. Elsewhere Carlos Chausson is a consistently interesting and well-sung Pinzón; Victoria Vergara makes some impressive contributions as Beatriz, and her Act II duet (‘Te conocí una tarde’) with Carreras’s Columbus is one of the highlights of the opera, a love duet almost Puccini-like in some of its vocal lines.
What is perhaps the most striking music comes at the very end of the work. An eight-minute epilogue blends the choric voices of the Indians, on the one hand, and the Spanish sailors on the other, with those of Columbus, Isabella and Marchena. Here Balada’s stylistic eclecticism, with its imitation of birdsong, its deployment of relatively lush string textures, its echoing of rhythms from the music of the native American Indians, and much else, complements the libretto perfectly. The text evokes the moment of landing in terms both of a clash of cultures, with the arrival of a Christianity intent on converting the new peoples it finds, and of future human exploration and in Columbus’s recognition that here is “la plataforma para los nuevos viajes y para naves extrañas que elevarán sus vuelos de la tierra” (the launching site for new voyages and for strange ships that will lift their flights above the ground).
The recorded sound is generally good – no better or worse than one generally encounters in live opera recordings. The work of the orchestra and chorus of Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu (only just up Las Ramblas from the city’s monument to Columbus) acquit themselves well, and none of the soloists let the side down. And yet … the overall conception of the work, its attempted scope, and the construction of a libretto in terms appropriate for such ambitions, has resulted in a lack of dramatic tension in places, and of a fully cogent organic unity. There is a prevailing sense of the episodic and, while most of the episodes are of interest and some of them have considerable power, one misses that overriding atmosphere of musical or dramatic necessity, of the kind of compulsion which dictates what must come next. The experience – at least when heard, rather than seen in the opera house – is of often striking parts rather than a fully satisfying whole. Even so, anyone with an interest in contemporary opera should certainly make the acquaintance of Cristóbal Colón
see also review by Göran