Balada’s reputation was made with starkly impressive orchestral tracts such as the Steel Symphony, and the scarcely less compromising cantata María Sabina from 1969. Gradually he felt the need for a “new dimension”, and from 1975 his music incorporated a strong lyrical impulse, supported by those modernist instrumental textures. Opera became an obvious outlet; and as a Catalan-born USA citizen straddling Old and New Worlds, little wonder that he was eventually drawn to the Columbus story. The spur of a Barcelona commission and availability of two of the world’s best known singers finally allowed Balada to bring his third opera to the stage.
Set on the deck of the Santa María, the action covers the momentous voyage from Palos to the sighting of land, incorporating flashbacks and visions of Columbus’s public encounters with Queen Isabella and his fellow explorers, as well as private life with his wife Beatriz and their children. The central concern, though, is an exploration of the hero’s inner spirit, his ambition, hope, despair and eventual triumph as land is sighted. The libretto, with its hints of space travel and questing beyond the present, covers curiously similar ground to The Voyage, Philip Glass’s Metropolitan Opera commission from three years later. Balada’s music, of course, is light years removed from minimalism, moving fluently between dignified quasi-mediaeval operatic melos, ethnic Pan-American primitivism with driving rhythms reminiscent of Revueltas, and the avant-garde orchestral sonorities with which he is most readily associated.
The glittering Barcelona premiere run was more than a mere succès d'estime, as this clearly balanced, composite live recording reveals. The two stars conjoin powerfully, Carreras vocally strained but dramatically committed, Caballé projecting Balada’s grateful long lines with steady, unfailingly regal poise and considerable fire. The very strong supporting cast features such stalwarts as Luis Álvarez and Miguel Solá, chorus and orchestra perform with fair precision under Alcántara’s far from unyielding direction.
If the mixture does not quite gel, that is largely to do with Balada’s seeming lack of interest in theatrical momentum. His hieratic drama advances with dignified tread, moment by moment, but at one unvaried dramatic pace. It is this sense of stasis, despite its attractive variety of tempi and textures, which finally stops Cristobal Colón being the immersive operatic experience one had hoped. Still, great praise is due to Naxos for bringing it back into the light, helped (as with the sequel) by full texts and a useful note by the composer.
The sequel written between 1992 and 1996 continues and completes the story. The sense of stasis is even stronger here, with the whole opera presented as a series of reflective flashbacks, reminiscences and conscience-stricken fantasies from the explorer on his deathbed. Comparisons with Glass’s nearly-contemporary The Voyage are even more marked, though once again the musical worlds are poles apart. Balada’s music does not dance. As in his recent Faust-bal for Madrid, he seems more interested in refined poetic contemplation than in complex theatre. Everything is earth-bound, introspective and darkly churned, the mixture (almost) the same as before.
Not quite, though. In La Muerte… the Amerindian elements are more prominent, producing a contrast of light and shade notably stronger than in the first opera. The leavening heightens by contrast the explorer’s sense of guilty betrayal, not just of the American natives, but of his wife and family, and his fellow explorers whom he outmanoeuvred. In one, powerful fantasy scene his triumphal homecoming to Barcelona (with which the opera began) is inverted to present the alternative return, in shame and chains, which the dying man imagines his due. Only a faint hope in the mercy of God sustains his last hours.
If once again the total effect is more impressive than involving, that’s hardly the fault of a strong and involved team led by veteran American tenor Jon Garrison, by no means as seductive vocally as in his Metropolitan Opera prime, but musically secure and dramatically incisive as ever. Judith Jenkins as Isabella manages a fair Caballé singalike, and though most of the remainder don’t do as much justice to the text as the Barcelona cast managed, Robert Page’s direction is beautifully shaped, the recording much more revealing of Balada’s rich and strange orchestral textures.
© Christopher Webber 2009
13 October 2009