BBC / Opus Arte

Music: Isaac Albéniz
Text: Francis Burdett Money-Coutts, Lord Latymer

David Wilson-Johnson (Merlin)

reviewed by Christopher Webber


Cast includes: David Wilson-Johnson (Merlin); Eva Marton (Morgan le Fay); Stuart Skelton (Arthur); Nivian (Carol Vaness); Ángel Ódena (Mordred); Victor García Sierra (King Lot); Ángel Rodriguez (Gawain); Juan Tomás Martínez (Sir Ector); Federico Gallar (Sir Pellinore); Eduardo Santamaría (Kay); Stephen Morscgeck (Archbishop of Canterbury);

Coro y Orquesta Titular del Teatro Real (Orquesta Sinfónica de Madrid); Coro de Niños de la Comunidad de Madrid. José de Eusebio (Musical Director); John Dew (Stage Director); Toni Bargalló (TV director)

World Premiere Stage Production, 9th June 2003, Teatro Real Madrid

[ BBC / Opus Arte 2 DVD set, with booklet. TT = 184' ]
TT = c 70' + 20'


The emergence of this epic opera into the light of day was one of the best early surprises of the millennium. Merlin was roused from its 100-year sleep by conductor/musicologist José de Eusebio, whose Decca CD set revealed an opera of lavish scope and inventiveness. Its three acts offer an engaging mixture of Gregorian chant, Teutonic heft, French polish and Spanish impressionism, with the delicate touch of Sullivan drawn on for good measure. Librettist Lord Latymer's ambition to forge a three-part, epic music drama on the Arthurian theme was doomed to failure, but despite a quantity of Wagnerian lumber there is no gainsaying the power and personality of Albéniz's score. [see CD review]

Thrilling though the CD set was, a question remained: could Merlin's flickering dramatic momentum be buoyed up by stage production? The plot follows the pre-Camelot events familiar from Malory and T.H.White's Once and Future King, Arthur's drawing of the sword from the stone and the ensuing civil war against Lot of Orkney and the sorceress Queen Morgan le Fay. Latymer's egregious libretto—written in a obfuscated, mock-Mediaeval English which would be intolerable if it weren't so funny—is a shambles, fumbling such action as there is and suggesting little motivation for the principal characters, Arthur, his mentor Merlin, the wicked Morgan and the Ariel-like maiden Nivian (Nimue.) Longing with her fellow Moorish maidens for their Iberian homeland, she it was who inspired the homesick Albéniz's finest music, as well as his most compelling theatricality.

John Dew's premiere stage production tends to be unfocussed in the stiff, knightly scenes of Act One, but gathers momentum as Morgana's sorcery insinuates itself into the score. Heinz Balthes's sets and José Manuel Vázquez's Beardsleyesque costumes make a good stab at evoking a somewhat spartan fantasy of might and magic. In providing a surplus of atmospheric orchestral interludes and offstage choruses, Albéniz set the staging team a real poser. Choreographer Mei Hong Lin dispatches them with intermittent inspiration. One bright idea, well worked, is to introduce dancers as Guinevere and Lancelot in Act 3, which neatly suggests the tragedy that was to come, had composer and librettist completed their trilogy. Altogether less effective are Lin's stiff, angular dances for the unfetchingly costumed Nivian with her nymphs and the gold-mining gnomes who lead Merlin to his ruin. Alas, those gnomes are sung offstage by women, rather than onstage by Albéniz's stipulated “chorus of countertenors”. A pity, but I suppose the Teatro Real's own pot of gold was not bottomless.

The principals are a mixed bunch. Best bouquet goes to David Wilson-Johnson as Merlin, a title-role offering surprisingly few opportunities. Yet the English baritone's dignified stage presence looms large throughout, and he is the only singer to make bricks of Latymer's verbal straw. Stuart Skelton's mature, portly Young Arthur is a dull dog whose workmanlike lyric tenor gives little offence and some pleasure.

Eva Marton (Morgana) and Carol Vaness (Nivian) in Act 2
Eva Marton (Morgana) and Carol Vaness (Nivian) in Act 2

Though her wobbly vocal and quaint verbal delivery threaten to cast the wrong kind of blight, Eva Marton's baleful looks and energetic pantomime prove splendidly right for the wicked witch Morgana. The casting of the experienced lyric soprano Carol Vaness in the key role of Nivian is more problematic. Well seasoned dramatically but vocally freyed, she sounds too like Marton in timbre to get the best out of their magically haunting Act 2 duet. The smaller roles, led by Ángel Ódena's surly, pink-punk Mordred, are well done. Under de Eusebio's rock-solid baton, orchestra and chorus acquit themselves with credit.

Video and sound quality are clear and detailed. TV direction (Toni Bargalló) is unfussy, and José Luis Pérez de Arteaga's interview with the conductor (Spanish with English subtitles) conveys the excitement of Eusebio's quest to bring this sleeping beauty to life. Chats with Wilson-Johnson and Marton add to the appeal of this attractive package, though the latter—bravely undertaken by Arteaga and the popular Hungarian diva in English—understandably fails to illuminate her striking performance. Though the feeling persists that Merlin is best experienced in the theatre of the mind, these DVDs convey a strong flavour of the excitement attending the Teatro Real's most important Spanish opera premiere for decades.

© Christopher Webber, 2004



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