Isaac Albeniz: Merlin (2000 recording)

Opera in three acts. Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes.

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The first part of an incomplete trilogy meant to mimic Wagner’s Ring Cycle set to a libretto in English that is probably one of the worst ever written in any language. Although it appears that Albeniz’s Arthurian Trilogy would not have been even half as long as Wagner’s Cycle, its brevity would not have made it more stage-worthy. I was actually going to write a review of Albeniz’s first opera Henry Clifford first, but seeing that that was a theoretical historical romance with fair-folk elements (there is a second act ballet of gnomes, goblins, and fairies, I can’t make this up!), in which the title character is a traitor in the name of love and spends three years as a rural pastor during the War of the Roses, I figured I would at least have the dignity to do a mythic opera where at least concessions to reality are not required.

SETTING: Medieval England. Standard early Arthurian fare in which Merlin makes sure Arthur pulls out the sword in the stone, defeats his half-sister Morgana, and is tricked into getting trapped in a cave full of golden treasures by a slave-girl who wants her freedom.

ACTS 1&2:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8eMIob-M_PI

ACT 3:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qY35JAo3AZg

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: Outside the East-End of Old St. Paul’s, London, Christmas Day, some time in the first millennium. (52 minutes)

0, 9, 12: The opera opens with a seven minute long prelude * which starts off resembling the prelude to Siegfried but ends more romantically. It is followed by an a cappella chorus of chanting monks and then the arrival of Merlin *, all heck breaks loose as he anticipates that Arthur will be crowned that day. His assistant Nivian comes on and they discuss that wicked Morgan Le Fay *.

18: There is an colourful interlude here *, one of many such interludes as Albeniz was trying to outdo Wagner here. The Royal Court comes out of the Cathedral, Merlin awaiting them.

22, 26, 27: The first music that actually has a pulse ** as the knights discuss matters amongst themselves leading to a long arioso from Merlin in which he urges them to declare war with Morgan Le Fay leading to full choral rage * and the arrival of Morgan Le Fay herself **. She wants her son Modred to be crowned king but the people want whoever can pull the sword Excalibur from the stone to become king.

33: Fanfare followed by yet another chorus * and an interlude as the Court retreats.

35, 38: The arrival of Arthur ** to fanfares and all sorts of heroic-sounding music, an interesting 3-minute sequence with interesting orchestral features before it turns quiet again and Arthur goes into an aria *.

44: The nine-minute long act finale starts with the monks off-stage to a stronger orchestral accompaniment leading to a rather magnificent chorus *** that doesn’t last long enough. Arthur then pulls the sword from the stone. Merlin explains a lot of background about how Arthur was born of Queen Igraine and was left on Sir Ector’s doorstep when he was a newborn.

49: Morgana tries to pull a charge of bastardy on Arthur but it doesn’t work. Everyone except her followers acclaim Arthur as king **. The act ends well.

ACT 2: A throne hall in the royal castle. (38 minutes)

0: Arthur and Merlin discuss the failed coup posed by Morgana and Arthur’s romance with Guenivere which Merlin warns him with be his undoing, infuriating Arthur. The orchestral accompaniment to this scene is very nice, a balance between gentility and agitation * followed by an interlude with wondering woodwinds.

7, 10, 12: The triumphal chorus as Morgana and Mordred are brought in as prisoners of war **. It results in Arthur asking Morgana why she so violently protested his becoming king (as he is her half-brother) **, he then embarks on a five minute long aria to this effect **.

19: In a long sedate recitative Morgana relates to Mordred that they will be avenged when Guenivere is made queen, as she will betray Arthur and destroy his kingdom *.

23, 33: The rest of the act consists of a 15-minute long duet ** between Morgana and Nivian, the latter seeking to be freed from her bondage to Merlin. Morgana tells her that only through trickery and deception can Merlin be conquered, and through Merlin’s downfall, Arthur also will be defeated as Merlin’s magic alone protects Arthur. This can be done by tricking Merlin to plunder gold from the cave house of a group of sexual ambivalent gnomes. Watch out for a harp descending feature which is repeated, otherwise the final section, around two and a half minutes, is the best thing so far in the opera ***.

ACT 3: In the woods, before the cave of the gnomes. (55 minutes)

0: The act opens with yet another long but good prelude **.

4: An etherial chorus **, leading to a sort of “part two” to the act prelude *. The chorus comes back in the last minute for an a cappella bit *.

13: Arthur’s furious aria * as he wakes from his dream (having slept in the forest) about Guenivere. For four minutes Merlin warns Arthur not to marry, it goes nowhere.

23: Merlin reflects that serving Arthur has led to nothing *. He decides that he wants to be entertained (and to plunder the gold from the gnomes)

26: The ballet ***, conducted by Nivian on her last errand for Merlin. This is just bizarre, really good, but bizarre. A chorus of counter-tenor gnomes are driven from their cave and chase after various mythic creatures. Then we get interluding of a lower voltage for six solid minutes.

40, 43, 48, 51: Nivian begs Merlin to let her “hold his rod” (I am not making this up!). He tells her to let him plunder the gnomes’ gold. He does, she gets to hold his magic wand (what are you thinking?), and she uses it to cause rocks to trap Merlin in the cave *, who them bemoans his fate as she runs off in freedom joyously **.  Morgan triumphs over foiling Merlin ** and everything is left in a cliffhanger because part two was never completed (a piano score for act one of Lancelot exists, but nothing else and the third opera was never more than a title).

COMMENTS:

This opera is a textbook example of why Wagner is the only Wagner. This isn’t because the work is imitative, it is, but because the Wagnerian concept was faulty to begin with and so only Wagner was really able to get away with it, mostly out of novelty and the snobbery of a musical intelligentsia determined to forget anything “Jewish” (Meyerbeer). Although certainly not a horrible copy-cat (D’Indy’s Fervaal is FAR worse than this) the libretto is well known to be trash with some latter-day references to rods and magic wands which today just come off as unintentionally funny. The score, however, actually does have some merit to it with each act having at least one memorable moment. Although by act three one can tell that a lot of the orchestral interludes are really becoming padding, the score does get progressively better. The influence of Wagner is obvious from the opening bar, but I also detected Debussy and Dukas at points, as well as Massenet (some of the brass effects mimic those in Le Mage). Perhaps if the trilogy had been completed this opera would be better known. Although the libretto is a gamma, the score makes this more of a beta.

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