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Henry Clifford - opera in three acts (1893-95)
Aquiles Machado (Henry Clifford); Alessandra Marc (Lady Clifford); Carlos Álvarez (Sir John Saint John); Jane Henschel (Lady Saint John); Ana Maria Martínez (Annie Saint John); Christian Immler (Colin); Ángel Rodríguez (Messenger).
Escolanía de la Santa Cruz del Valle de los Caídos
Madrid Symphony Chorus and Orchestra/José de Eusebio
Rec. Madrid, 2003. DDD
DECCA 473 937-2 [2CDs: 67: 08+72:29=139:37]

It has come as a remarkable surprise to find that in the late nineteenth century, British Romantic Opera was alive and well, safe in the hand of the Spanish composer Isaac Albéniz, then living in London. A couple of years ago (January 2001) I reviewed Albéniz’s slightly later (1906) opera Merlin, which came as a complete surprise, a re-writing of a page of musical history: not only that the music existed at all, but how worthwhile was its revival. Now we have his forgotten Wars of the Roses opera Henry Clifford, his first full-scale operatic score (there was also an operetta, not yet on CD), written between 1893 and 1895. What comes as the greatest surprise after another discovery from the same collaboration is how consistently musically strong they are – constantly gripping material and memorable tunes. If we did not know better we might suspect these operas were written in white heat of inspiration, rather than representing an impecunious Spanish composer away from home responding to the well-funded if misplaced artistic ambitions of his wealthy patron and librettist, banker Francis Burdett Money-Coutts. Money-Coutts’s objective was nothing less than establishing a Wagnerian English national opera. He was unsuccessful, largely because the structure of his libretti contained nothing new, and because his language has dated so badly. (‘O Mother, why didst thou deny my longing for the fray’; ‘let the plighted troth like a ring enfold you both’ or ‘Shall loyalty to phantom right our yearning heart estrange?’ are prime examples.) Fascinating, too, that within a very few years another moneyed would-be operatic pioneer, Lord Howard de Walden (writing as T.E. Ellis), funded Joseph Holbrooke in a similar enterprise, which also failed over the libretti, in that case a convoluted re-telling of Welsh mythology.

I have found this Albéniz English opera another worthwhile discovery – and if you responded positively to the CDs of Merlin by the same team, you are going to love this operatic re-telling of a slice of English history. When the future of the record industry seemed to be falling increasingly into the hands of the independent labels it is heart-warming to know that we can still find an unknown opera issued by Decca with all the high production values we traditionally associate with that company name. For me, this is what recorded music is all about: worthwhile unknown repertoire given tremendous impact by a dedicated team that seems to believe in it and with packaging that is second to none. The 146-page booklet is a work of scholarship in itself, with libretto in four languages and historical essays. Indeed the only slight problem is the one we had with Merlin: it seems impossible to get hold of a vocal score which I like to have by me when listening to unknown recorded opera (if any reader knows the solution to this do please let me know).

There is very little evidence here of the more familiar later Albéniz, and, if you did not know, you would be hard-put to identify the composer; yet for sparkling melody, dramatic sweep and orchestral colour, it is a fine example of an unknown turn-of-the-century opera, very much of its time. Although Albéniz was going for a Wagnerian historical canvas the many set numbers, especially in the first two acts, make it easy to explore on CD. The third act is more through-composed but even here Decca’s seventeen entry points identify the plums. Altogether the Decca team have given us a total of 48 access points, so as soon as one finds favourite moments they are easy to return to. There are, inevitably, occasionally naff moments. Unfortunately for me one of these comes towards the end of Act III, when in a vigorous quartet ‘For fear of pain flee not the right’, a slightly rum-ti-tum rhythm evokes the ghost of a vigorous Edward German which re-emerges in the final chorus, making the opera end as more of a period piece than I had expected.

The solo team are not familiar to me, but they all contribute strongly in clear English, though with just occasionally the shadow of a too correct pronunciation. Three of the earlier team return. The mezzo Jane Henschel, who made such a success of Morgan-le-fay in Merlin, is heard again, now as Lady Saint John, while two other leading members of that cast also reappear - the baritone Carlos Álvarez, Merlin last time is now Lord Saint John, and soprano Ana María Martínez, previously Nivian, now sings Annie Saint John. The chorus are virile and compelling and the orchestral contribution by the Madrid Symphony Orchestra confident and powerful and indeed only the children’s choir near the beginning even remotely gave one reservations. Recommended for explorers, for dipping, and for good conservatoire opera courses looking for a vivid unfamiliar score to get their teeth into.

Lewis Foreman

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