BBC / Opus Arte
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);
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 librettowritten in a obfuscated, mock-Mediaeval English which would be intolerable if it weren't so funnyis 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.
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 latterbravely undertaken by Arteaga and the popular Hungarian diva in Englishunderstandably 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