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Isaac ALBÉNIZ (1860-1919)
Merlin ed. Eusebio (1898-1903)
David Wilson-Johnson (baritone) Merlin; Eva Marton (soprano) Morgan le Fay; Stuart Skelton (tenor) Arthur; Carol Vaness (soprano) Nivian; Ángel Ódena (baritone) Mordred; Victor Garcia Sierra (bass) King Lot of Orkney; Ángel Rodriguez (tenor) Gawain; Juan Tomás Martinez (singer) Sir Ector; Federico Gallar (baritone) Sir Pellinore; Eduardo Santamaria (tenor); Stephen Morscheck (bass) Archbishop of Canterbury;
Chorus and Orchestra of the Teatro Real de Madrid/José de Eusebio.
Rec. live at Teatro Real, Madrid, on June 9th, 2003.
16:9. Includes interviews with José de Eusebio, Eva Marton and David Wilson-Johnson. English, German, Spanish, French subtitles.
BBC/OPUS ARTE OA 0888 D [2 DVDs: 184’00]

A labour of love for musicologist/conductor José de Eusebio, this DVD represents the world premiere recording of Albéniz’s opera, Merlin. Merlin was intended as part of a trilogy (partial recovery of Lancelot is apparently possible, although there is nothing at all for Guenevere).

A word of warning. The text (sung in English) takes some getting used to. The librettist (himself a mouthful – Francis Burdett Money-Coutts) writes in a style that can most kindly be referred to as dated (‘Hark what I rede’; ‘O wonderful clerk of necromancy’; ‘The lists await thee’ are randomly selected examples … the word ‘forsooth’ crops up a good number of times, too). Bad enough spoken, but sung with heavy vibrato (especially in the case of Eva Marton), it takes some getting used to. It took me three attempts to get past the first half-hour. But it was worth it.

The sets (Heinz Balthes), lighting (the appropriately named Eduardo Bravo) and general production values (John Dew) are simply superb, sometimes rising to the breathtaking. In the opera house itself, this must have been simply magnificent.

Of course Wagner is evoked here. The use of myth (Arthur in particular) is the obvious parallel. The most obvious point of contact comes in a ‘Siegmund moment’, when a sword (Excalibur here), firmly inserted in stone (as opposed to a tree) is dislodged in heroic fashion. It is notable, then, that Albéniz’s musical language is far removed from the popular rhythms of the piano music for which he is most famous. Dances and dancers there certainly are (aplenty in Act 3), but this is not blazing Spanish nationalism. It is rather Albéniz’s attempt to tap a deeper well, of the connections between myth, universal issues and even perhaps the subconscious. The sense of large unfolding, of sometimes ritualistic spectacle, will probably therefore surprise many.

The work begins with Albéniz invoking a Rheingoldisch sense of stasis … a spear encircled in red on stage draws the eye. Surprisingly, though, it was the enchanted mysticism of Parsifal that sprang to mind (if not with the expertise of Wagner).

David Wilson-Johnson was a good, solid choice of a Merlin. His English is, of course, beyond reproach. His Nivian (Carol Vaness, with very green hair) has a lovely low register.

The Archbishop of Canterbury as operatic character is a novel idea (the only one to spring to mind is in Saint-Saëns’ Henry VIII). Stephen Morscheck has an imposing voice but is rather wobbly in pitch. Nothing in the wobble-stakes on Eva Marton’s Morgan le Fay, though. She shrieks, screams and is generally unpleasant to listen to.

Stuart Skelton’s Arthur can sound laudably heroic at times. Ángel Rodríguez is costumed to look like a metal insect in Act 2, but he too is powerful vocally.

Act 3 has a lot of ballet in it. Couples frolic sexily to bright and breezy, if not inspired, music in a celebration of Spring. Guinevere is actually the principal ballerina (look in the cast list – there is no sung part), and very beautiful she is, too. The gentleman dancers in miner’s hats struck me as curious, but never mind – as the stage becomes more populous, so the music seems to sound more Spanish.

The music is, then, a compendium of styles. Wagner looms large, but there are touches of Debussy around too. Even (strange to say) Albéniz (the one we know) turns up. It must be reiterated that this is a major musicological triumph, and in stage realisation it is also a visual feast. If this opera enters the repertoire, I will eat my sombrero … which makes the case for at least seeing the DVD all the more convincing.

Extras here comprise three interviews. The conductor talks of Albéniz’s operas (Henry Clifford, Merlin, San Antonio de la Florida) and of the problems of text, staging and libretto (Money-Coutts was also the librettist for Henry Clifford). Eva Marton asserts that Morgan le Fay is the most important character, moving the action forward and comparing her role to Ortrud or Kundry (not Brünnhilde!). Finally David Wilson-Johnson talks of Merlin the philosopher, cynic, war veteran and sensualist but possibly most importantly he admits that the text is ‘mostly incomprehensible, even to a Brit’. How right he is.

Colin Clarke

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