Robert E. Page

Leonardo Balada: La Muerte de Colón

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La Muerte de Colón (1992-1993, rev.1996) is the second of Spanish-American composer Leonardo Balada's two operas based on the life of the explorer. (The first, Cristóbal Colón [1984-1986], is also available on the Naxos label.) The recording of the second work comes from its premiere production in 2005, at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, where Balada has taught since 1970. It is more successful on every level than the opera to which it is a sequel. Cristóbal Colón is a work that's interesting rather than compelling, but this opera, with a libretto by the composer, is dramatically coherent, emotionally focused, and musically convincing. The character of Columbus on his deathbed, reflecting on the consequences of his actions in the New World and the devastation he brought to the indigenous culture, is psychologically complex, and even sympathetic in his dawning self-awareness. Balada intriguingly introduces a Mysterious Character, the protagonist's conscience, who emerges out of his unconscious in his dying hours, and who, through flashbacks, allows Columbus to see with clarity just what he has done. The work is also musically more successful than its predecessor; instead of a frenetic mélange of styles, Balada here allows musical ideas to unfold and blossom in ways that are unforced and memorable, and they seem inexorable. The orchestration is colorful and inventive and plays a strong role in the development of the music's logic. The cast may not have star power, but the singers are consistently excellent, down to the smallest roles, with no weak links. Balada's vocal writing has matured so that it sits more comfortably for the voice and is more lyrically melodic. Tenor Jon Garrison, soprano Judith Jenkins, baritone David Okerlund, and mezzo-soprano Kathryn Mueller are especially impressive in the roles of Columbus, Queen Isabella, the Mysterious Character, and Beatriz, singing with power, warmth, and flexibility. Robert Page leads the Carnegie Mellon Philharmonic, the Carnegie Repertory Chorus, and members of the Mendelssohn Choir in performances that are disciplined and propulsively energetic; in spite of its more somber subject matter, this opera is more exuberantly expressive and engaging than its predecessor. Naxos' sound is clean, spacious, and well-balanced. La Muerte de Colón is an opera that deserves wide attention and, particularly in this impressive recording, should be of strong interest to fans of new opera.

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