Merlin is an early 20th century collaboration between the English banker Francis Burdett Money-Coutts and his Spanish composer/protege, Isaac Albéniz. It’s an interesting work falling some way short of being a masterpiece but, when given as fine a production and performance as it gets in this Madrid DVD, definitely of interest and worth a look.
Money-Coutts wrote libretti for a three part Arthurian operatic cycle intending it to be, in some sense, an English Ring cycle. Albéniz more or less completed the music for the first part, Merlin, but it was never performed. There is some debate about how much of the music for the second part, Lancelot got written; maybe enough to form the basis of a performing edition, maybe not. The final part; Guenevere is almost certainly a lost cause. The music for this production of Merlin owes a lot to detective work by the conductor José de Eusebio.
The libretto is a problematic. In part it’s because of some cloying chauvinism but mainly it’s the language Money-Coutts uses. He tried to create, as did Wagner, a consciously archaized language befitting a mythical epic. At times it sounds like Wagner translated by McGonagall. He uses words like “prankt”, “brede”, “paynim” and “sendal”. Word order is reversed so that, for example, something is “fangled new” rather than “new fangled”. It results in risible couplets like:
“Nivian’s charms of mystical measure
Cheating the gnomes to desert their treasure”
and ambiguous gems such as:
“Here is common magic wrought by Merlin’s rod”
Nivian, it must be said, seems to be fascinated by Merlin’s rod.
Fortunately the music is rather better. It’s densely scored and very melodic though it rarely rises to the heights that Wagner at his best achieves and at times it does seem as if Carmen is about to break out. There are some good choruses and interludes though and the conclusion of Act 3 is very fine.
What makes this disk worth watching though is the realization of the work. The design, direction and choreography are excellent and all the performers give utterly committed performances. The sets (Heinz Balthes) and costumes (José Manuel Vázquez) are stylized Arthurian. The colour palette leans heavily to the blue end of the spectrum and the sets have lots of strong vertical lines. It’s effective and consistent with just the occasional use of a less blue red and green to point up the ‘otherness’ of Morgan le Fay, Mordred and Nivian. The designer is not afraid to make strong statements either. In Act 1 the back of the stage is a projection of a grid of babies. In Act 2 they are replaced by hanged men. It’s a strong commentary on the action. Dance is really important in this piece. There are a number of orchestral interludes that need to be choreographed plus two important characters; Guenevere and Lancelot, are represented by non-singing dancers. Paloma Diaz, as Guenevere, is on stage a lot and makes a major contribution to the action. Mei Hong Lin’s choreography is a key to the success of the production. John Dew’s direction ties it all together and makes for a pretty strong overall dramatic impact.
The singing cast is very strong. Three of the for principals are nearly faultless. Baritone David Wilson-Johnson (last seen by me making his Covent Garden debut in Henze’s We Come to the River in 1976) carries the show as Merlin. He looks a bit like Slartibartfast but he sings with a steady, firm tone and acts really well. His chemistry with Carol Vaness’ Nivian is really good. Vaness is as good as one would expect. She inhabits the role and the power and musicality that made her the Tosca and Donna Elvira of her age are evident. A young Stuart Skelton sings Arthur and one can see why he has become one of the leading contemporary Heldentenors. He’s musical but he can really belt out the notes right up into a clear, ringing top register. He interacts really well with Paloma Diaz’ Guenevere. I’m less convinced about Eva Marton’s Morgan le Fey. In the first act her vibrato is excessive and her tone is squally (OK so this is just before she retired from the stage after a long and distinguished career). Also her English diction is way below the standard of excellence set by the three others (who are, of course, native English speakers, after a fashion). She’s significantly better though in Act 2 and finishes up the Act 3 Finale very well indeed. The lesser roles are all sung very well though there’s a fair amount of Spanglish going on. Subtitles are recommended. José de Eusebio owns this score and gets a really solid performance out of the Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro Real.
The DVD is a BBC Worldwide/Opus Arte production and is pretty high standard. Sound options are Dolby 2.0 and 5.1. Picture is 16:9 anamorphic and it’s very good. The documentation, for once, is quite good and there are 30 minutes of interview with José de Eusebio, Eva Marton and David Wilson-Johnson.
All in all, I think the whole team has to congratulated for bringing to life a near forgotten piece which may not be a masterpiece but is of considerable interest.