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
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
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
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).
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
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.