Albéniz - Merlin

Merlin (Decca cover)

Isaac Albéniz
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

Decca CD box set: 467 096-2
Timing: 2 hr 17 min

One of the consequences of reaching saturation point with the standard opera 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 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 to match.

Isaac Albeniz
Isaac Albéniz

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 of inspiration.

Jose de Eusebio
José de Eusebio

Not everything about Merlin succeeds so well. Albéniz's comparative 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. Next perhaps one of the complete zarzuelas ... San Antonio de la Florida, anyone?

© Christopher Webber 2000

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