Isaac Albéniz (rev. José
Opera in three acts, Part One of the trilogy King Arthur by Francis Burdett
Money Coutts, Lord Latymer.
Merlin - Carlos Álvarez; King Arthur - Plácido
Domingo; Morgan le Fay - Jane Henschel; Nivian - Ana María
Martinez; Archbishop of Canterbury - Carlos Chausson; Mordred
- Christopher Maltman; with Javier Franco, Felipe Bou, José López
Ferrero, Javier Roldán, Ángel Rodríguez.
Monks of the Monastery of Alfonso X "El Sabio", Coro Nacional de España,
Coro de la Comunidad de Madrid, Orquesta Sinfónica de Madrid, C.
José de Eusebio.
467 096-2 2CD box set Total Timing 2 hr 17
One of the consequences of reaching saturation point with the standard repertoire
is that some very odd, moribund failures get disinterred, more in hope than
expectation. Most of these are swiftly reburied, but every now and again
a living treasure is unearthed. Albéniz's opera "Merlin" is that rare
thing, an unperformed and virtually unknown work of genuine power.
I suppose part of the joy comes from the sheer implausibility of the project.
The leading Spanish impressionist pianist/composer of the day gets bankrolled
by an eccentric English Lord into setting several of his libretti, many dealing
with British Myth. These abortive progeny make the stage briefly (if at all)
before sinking into merciful oblivion. "What a shame", cry the musicologists,
"that the composer of the incomparable 'Iberia' should have had to waste
his time on such dross."
That is received opinion on the clutch of operas written by Albéniz
for his patron, Lord Latymer - Francis Burdett Money Coutts, of the banking
family. In truth, with the exception of the one Spanish subject amongst them,
Pepita Jiménez, little is known about these operas at all. The history
of "Merlin", retold by musicologist and conductor José de Eusebio
in his essay for this excellently presented issue, is a fascinating catalogue
of mishaps and farce. Before now, the only opportunity the public had to
hear the piece was in a cut version performed one night in 1950 by the Junior
Football Club (sic.) in a Barcelona cinema.
What emerges in this full, well-nourished recording? "Merlin" turns out to
be a highly ambitious music drama in three acts, retelling the familiar Arthurian
legend up to and including the entombment of Merlin by Nivian (Nimue) in
the Cave of Gold. It was intended by Lord Latymer be the first part of a
trilogy, so there are many loose ends to the plot, which was to rival "The
Ring" in length and complexity. Not much happens, on stage at least. The
English text reads like Wagner in one of those quaint turn-of-the-century
English translations, with an admixture of Scott's pseudo-Shakespearian diction.
Indeed, one of the unexpected pleasures of reviewing this set was the exercise
gained from regular visits to the Shorter Oxford to work out what on earth
the Noble Lord had been trying to say. The music is appropriately Wagnerian
in ambition, style and content, with a web of leitmotifs and thick orchestration
If all this sounds impossibly stilted, lumbering and fatuous I'm glad to
report that Albéniz triumphs over circumstance, through hard labour
and sheer native talent. Vaulting the opaque density of the text - by largely
ignoring it - he produced a score which is full, if not absolutely full,
of light, passion and real individuality. Merlin is an engaging mixture of
Gregorian chant, Wagnerian heft, French polish and Spanish impressionism,
with a touch of English Romantic thrown in for good measure - another essay
by Jacinto Torres points out Albéniz's likely London acquaintance
with composers such as Parry and Stanford. The set pieces are exhilarating,
notably the drawing of the Sword from the Stone in Act 1, accompanied by
a glittering explosion of syncopated trumpet fanfares. The chorus of acclamation
at the end of the Act matches this with a thrilling sweep and power that
blows any remaining Wagnerian cobwebs away.
Despite a lyrical scena for Arthur in which he magnanimously forgives the
miscreant rebels, the first half of Act 2 isn't on the same level, with a
deal of knightly plotting that sounds like Stanford on Speed. Then, towards
the end of the Act, Albéniz hits his true stride. The spotlight swings
away from King Arthur towards the hapless Nivian, Saracen Arial to Merlin's
machiavellian Prospero. She is desperate for freedom to leave the damps of
Britain for the sun and light of her native Mediterranean, a desire perhaps
uncomfortably close to the composer's own. At all events Nivian and her magical,
Moorish world drew from Albéniz a stream of fine music in his most
personal impressionist style, making memorable use of alhambrismo, the chromatic
recreation of Arabic music so popular in contemporary Spanish orchestral
works such as Bretón's "En la Alhambra" and Chapí's "Los Gnomos
de la Alhambra". Act 3 begins with a delicately evocative Prelude and choral
song in praise of the May morning, capped by the sensual dance of the Moorish
nymphs - quintessentially Spanish, pungently spiced in harmony and orchestration,
the highlight of the whole work. Merlin's seduction, and Nivian's closing
jubilation as she sets off for her beloved South, are at the same high level
Not everything about Merlin succeeds so well. Albéniz's theatrical
inexperience and lack of interaction with Latymer's convoluted doggerel produces,
Nivian apart, a deck of cardboard characters who come to life but spasmodically.
The vocal lines are imaginative and taxing, but resolutely unwedded to the
words. There is a cultural schizophrenia about the end product which will
always mitigate against its dramatic viability. An impressive cast do what
they can to flesh the figures out. Domingo sounds astoundingly youthful as
Arthur, in virile voice apart from an occasional hint of wear above the stave.
The young Álvarez's saturnine baritone sounds mature and generally
steady enough for the title role, and he makes what he can of the magician's
rather piecemeal musical opportunities. Both singers have an acceptable command
of sung English - what they can have made of some of it, goodness only knows!
As Morgan le Fay, presiding evil genius of the plot, American soprano Jane
Henschel makes much more of the text than her Spanish colleagues. Henschel's
vocal contribution is generous in quantity if sometimes spreading in quality.
Ana María Martinez makes a sympathetic Nivian, singing with unaffected
purity throughout. Their scene together at the end of Act 2 as Morgan goads
the Saracen girl into action against her master-tormentor is mesmeric,
dramatically original and musically intense.
For conductor/musicologist José de Eusebio this was clearly a labour
of love, and he above all is the hero of the hour. The scrupulous detail
of his team's preparation is impressive, even down to having the Monks' Choir
perform their Chant in correct mediaeval English dog-Latin. They even provide
a posse of eight counter-tenors for a semi-chorus of gnomes lasting all of
50 seconds! Such careful attention shows proper respect to a work with no
performing history, but Eusebio's triumph is his ability to inspire the large
cast, chorus and orchestra to sound so completely at ease in an unfamiliar
musical and linguistic milieu. The performance has a powerful momentum which
succeeds in restoring the score to life, single-handedly bringing about a
revaluation of Albéniz's stature as an opera composer. At last, warts
and all, Merlin lives and breathes - magnificently.
An additional review from Lewis Foreman
This is an amazing and unexpected revival, a totally unknown
English-language opera, beautifully sung and presented, that will, I suspect,
come as a complete surprise to most opera lovers. But it has to be said that,
with its strong Wagnerian inheritance, you would never guess most of it to
be by Albéniz if you did not know. There were many operas written
in this turn-of-the-century idiom, but few which generate such a consistent
or infectious momentum.
Despite the popularity of Arthurian themes for novelists, there are comparatively
few Arthurian operas. After Purcell's King Arthur we need to come
to the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries for later examples, many
by British composers. Parry's unorchestrated Guenever of 1885-6 was
repudiated by the composer, but an aria orchestrated by Jeremy Dibble hinted
at a virile score and memorable invention when broadcast in 1995. Edward
Naylor's Arthur the King and Rutland Boughton's cycle The Round
Table are completely forgotten. More recently Ian Hamilton's Lancelot
made a brief appearance in 1985 noticed by few who were not at the
performance and quickly vanished. It was the dramatic cantata The Legend
of King Arthur by the American composer Elinor Remick Warren which alerted
me to the real possibilities of an Arthurian theme, for me one of the highpoints
of the 1995 Three Choirs Festival, but despite a packed cathedral and a warm
reception made little wider impact. Probably the best known Arthurian opera
is Chausson's Le Roi Arthus, though possibly the most noted
predecessor to Albéniz's score was Goldmark's Merlin. There
was also another Merlin, by the completely forgotten Philippe
Bartholomé Rüfer, seen in Berlin in 1887.
In fact Albeniz's opera was intended as the first of a cycle of three operas,
and the pacing of the story, which really does not end satisfactorily, reflects
this role as the start of something larger. It was to be followed by
Lancelot, which was begun but never finished, and Guenevere
of which we have a libretto but no music.
At the turn of the century there was quite a tradition of rich financiers
with artistic inclinations funding their chosen composer - perhaps the best
known being Lord Howard de Walden whose gloomy libretti based on Welsh legends
he financed Holbrooke to set. But Albéniz preceded them, albeit by
only a few years. Albéniz lived in London for some four years in the
1890s where he met Francis B Money-Coutts, the heir to the Coutts banking
empire, who financed him in return for his setting a series of Money-Coutts's
libretti - indeed there was a formal contract. There were three of these
operas: Henry Clifford (1893-5), Pepita Jiménez (1895)
and Merlin, whose libretto was published in 1897 and was composed
The Prelude was given several performances when Albéniz was still
writing the opera, but otherwise it has only had three hearings before this
recording. A fully sung piano run-through in 1905, a truncated revival in
Spanish in 1950 and its concert premiere, in English, in 1998 which lead
on the present recording. The booklet is fascinating for the blow by blow
account of how the score was reassembled and researched for the revival -
it is wonderful that we still have such skilful enthusiasts willing to devote
the thousands of hours and the not inconsiderable cost that go into such
revivals. It was certainly worth the effort on this occasion.
The first act tells the familiar story of the boy Arthur pulling the sword
from the stone, thus identifying himself as the chosen King, and ending with
Morgan le Fay, Mordred and their followers singing their defiance at this
turn of events, before all sing a patriotic verse to end the act on a triumphant
note. With its use of plainsong at appropriate moments in the church scenes
it has been hailed as pioneering, but in fact is a vigorous and musically
inventive act which succeeds because of its taught construction and the headlong
momentum which never lets up.
The second act opens at Tintagel Castle. Arthur tells Merlin of his love
for Guenevere, but Merlin recognises Guenever as a threat, and he is determined
to discredit her. Morgan, Mordred and Sir Pellinore are brought in, the defeated
in their insurrection against Arthur. He pardons them, but Morgan le Fay
is already plotting again and has realised she has to eliminate Merlin to
reach the King.
In the third Act we stray further from the well-known story. Arthur sings
of may time and Guenevere, and Merlin determines to intervene. But first
(like Wotan) Merlin needs gold and plans to take it from the gnomes. To achieve
this he calls Nivian and her companions to dance. Presumably it was the demands
of the theatre at that time that demanded dances of Saracens and gnomes in
the third act, and their music take us much nearer to the Albéniz
of Iberia and an idiom we all know. Nivian then dances seductively
for Merlin who is aroused and she persuades him to let her hold his magic
wand (no guffaws in the back row, please). Naïvely she does not realise
she now holds all Merlin's power as he enters the cave to raid the gnomes'
gold. Nivian seeking freedom from the gnomes and Merlin unwittingly invokes
Merlin's power and seals the cave, and Morgan le Fay reflects on the power
of innocence to undo the most powerful magic. This rather contrived end gave
Albéniz the opportunity for some dramatic music, but it is the least
convincing part of the opera.
The weakness of the work is, as may be expected, Money-Coutts's libretto.
Not in structure or unnecessary wordiness, indeed the plot moves with commendable
swiftness, by an author who seems au fait with the demands of the
stage, but because of its arcane language. This includes such delights as
"be forgotten the scathe and domage/each of us twain has done the other!"
and "Orgulous boys with spite so dreadly/dare to say what they list to say!"
Merlin is sung in the original English, with a strong cast. Domingo is vocally
tremendous as King Arthur, projecting his rôle and crowning the ensemble
in truly heroic style. His English is remarkably good, but his slight accent
is compounded by all the other slight accents from most of the cast, which
reinforce the antique words when they would be best played down. Virile choral
singing and strong orchestral playing, vivdly and realistically caught, all
add to the success of this revival. In short, a triumph. The 125-page booklet
is an exemplary production, itself a useful contribution to the literature
of a work that has been accorded little scholarly coverage. We are given
the text in English, French and Spanish, and this is one of those operas
where it is essential to have the libretto because some of it is difficult
to follow, especially towards the end of the third act.
Writing in the booklet to champion the music, the conductor, José
De Eusebio announces baldly "Albéniz's opera Merlin is destined
to become part of the major international operatic repertoire". His is a
passionate and committed advocacy. Well Merlin certainly goes with
a swing and there are few musical longeurs. But whether so old fashioned
a plot would find favour on the international stage today is difficult to
say, though I must say I would love to see it. It is the perfect CD opera,
and especially on the first disc this is a recording one will constantly
dip into. Do try it.