Theo Alcántara

Leonarda Balada: Cristóbal Colón

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Cristóbal Colón (1984-1986) is the first of Spanish-American composer Leonardo Balada's two operas based on the life of the explorer. (The second, La Muerte de Colón [1992-1993], is also available on the Naxos label.) The recording of the first work comes from its premiere production in 1989 at Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, and boasts two international superstars, José Carreras and Montserrat Caballé, in the leading roles of Columbus and Queen Isabella. Balada's musical style had been conventionally modernist until the mid-'70s, when he adopted melody into his compositional arsenal, and since then a significant part of his output has been operatic. Cristóbal Colón is an eclectic piece, combining lyrical vocal gestures with inventive orchestration, a broad palette of modernist techniques, and suggestions of traditional Spanish folk music. Balada is a skilled composer, and his approach here is one that might well succeed in producing a compelling opera. There's almost always something interesting going on, but in spite of many striking moments, the piece fails to hang together either musically or dramatically, and not much sticks in the memory when it's over. The ending is effective, though -- a magical depiction of the first sighting of the New World -- mysterious, exotic, volatile, and richly textured. The episodic libretto, by Antonio Gala, fails to avoid the pitfalls that hobble so many historical operas; too many events and characters get conflated, and the principals don't emerge as flesh and blood individuals who inspire us to care about their fate. Having Caballé and Carreras available as the leads obviously caused the creators to maximize their interactions, and they have a number of romantic-sounding duets, but neither is in top form. Carreras is often pushed uncomfortably into his upper range, and Caballé starts off sounding strained, although her voice becomes more relaxed and warm as the opera progresses. Baritone Carlos Chausson stands out as impressively resonant in the key role of Pinzón. The Orchestra and Chorus of the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, led by Theo Alcántara, get quite a workout with the challenging score, and they perform admirably. The sound of the live recording, with some caveats, is acceptable; the singers and orchestra are always clearly audible. Unfortunately, so is the prompter. In one scene with spoken dialogue, the singers are miked with the volume grotesquely cranked up, to disastrous effect. While Cristóbal Colón isn't likely to enter the repertoire, this recording may be of sufficient interest to merit the attention of devotees of modern opera.

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