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Isaac ALBÉNIZ (1860-1909)
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]


Of late we have had the opportunity to listen to Merlin, Albéniz’s 1906 opera that has only recently had its first fully staged performance (2003) at Teatro Real in Madrid. Now Decca gives us Henry Clifford, his earlier, first grand opera and one can now trace the composer’s operatic lineage even further back, to the start of his artistic collaboration with his librettist, Francis Burdett Money-Coutts, the aptly named millionaire banker. The theme is the War of the Roses, the plot appositely convoluted, whether warlike, confrontational, love-lorn or verdant; the libretto frankly tosh of the most delirious kind, and the greatest focus of interest is Albéniz’s orchestration, which is particularly intriguing in its compound of late nineteenth century and Wagnerian generic theatricality. One simply wouldn’t know that it was written by him and in the context of an English language libretto, listening blind, I would have hazarded a guess at a German educated British aspirant to the domestic operatic crown.

Albéniz was a London resident in the last decade of the nineteenth century and his benefactor was determined to establish English opera based on the Wagnerian model. The first two Acts embody many set numbers and though the notes state, correctly, that the third Act is more through composed there’s very little effective distinction to be made. There are colourful roles and plenty of opportunities for declamatory, histrionic and sensitive singing. As I said the orchestral writing was, for me, the most telling part of the work – the orchestral bridge passages in particular are frequently deeply impressive – but set pieces abound and despite the work’s deficiencies it gave me great pleasure listening to it, cavils aside. One of those cavils I suppose we should note here. Most of the cast are Spanish and I rather pitied their vocal coach. The libretto is so besotted with plighted troth and Away! Black beldame (it’s impossible to overstate how truly appalling it is) that many of the singers, not unsurprisingly, have some difficulty in pronunciation. Allied to which the sonic sound stage is sometimes a bit skewed; some singers are more forward in the balance than others. It would also be true to say that the men have more comprehensively satisfying roles than the women and that both are sometimes taxed by some strong demands on their upper registers. This doesn’t sound like an easy sing and the cast cope relatively well, though not comprehensively so.

There are a number of points of interest in the score right from the colourful and dramatic late Romanticism of the prelude, with its powerful strings and the medievalism of the woodwinds. I said that there were no clues as to the composer’s identity but maybe there’s just a slight prefigurement in Henry’s aria and the duet with Lady Clifford O Mother why didst thy deny my longing for the fray. And Albéniz really shines in the Act I sequence following So am I quite unknown? where the orchestration is marvellously expressive, central European, with burnished horns and Wagnerian moulding. There are certainly foursquare moments in Act I. The defeated Messenger’s cry All is lost! ushers in a solidly blustery but unsatisfactory few pages that only returns to form with the bier processional tread announcing the death of Clifford’s father; noble and fine. Again the inconsequentiality of the libretto and the uncommitted hesitancy of the score lead to a rather lame conclusion to the act.

The second Act opens in fairyland with some Mendelssohnian material and is suffused in ballet generosity but before long we get the heft of a love duet between Henry and Annie which brings out some passionate singing though in truth the second Act is no advance on the first and treads dramatic water for much of its length. What stays in the mind is something like the scene setting orchestral passage announcing the Earl of Richmond’s landing or the stirring Shall loyalty to phantom right in the final Act and Albéniz’s thoroughly professional approach to dramatic highlighting.

So I wouldn’t rate this as a success in the same way that Merlin was, but I would say that in its embryonic way it sheds new light on Albéniz’s earlier compositional life. To this end the booklet is extremely helpful, noting the historical context, the textual problems and the production history. And on a personal note, for all my strictures, I enjoyed it.

Jonathan Woolf

see also review by Lewis Foreman


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