Isaac Albeniz: Henry Clifford (1895)

Opera in three acts. Running Time: 2 hours 19 minutes.

The first opera of Albeniz, this received five performances in the first half of May, 1895 before disappearing completely until 2002 when this recording was made. The initial run at the Liceu in Barcelona was actually of an Italian translation of the English libretto by the banker Francis Money-Coutts who also wrote the libretto of Merlin, making the first recording also the first performance in the original libretto. This is a tale of historical fantasy with the War of the Roses telescoped down to three years, a conventional love story with paternal conflict, and elements of witchcraft and high fantasy (act two opens with a ballet of gnomes and elves). What consensus there is on the opera among critics is that the music is good if not very good, while the libretto and plot are slow and stupid. The score is split in terms of compositional methodology: the first two acts are divided into numbers, while the third is through-composed.

The recording used for this review is available on Amazon Music, although it is also up on YouTube.

HISTORIAN PHIL: The War of the Roses was a series of civil wars fought in England between 1455 and 1487. In short a dynastic crisis between the house of York (the white rose) and that of Lancaster (the red rose), for most of the conflict the ruling house was York, and Lancaster even died out in the male line but Henry Tudor (later Henry VII) married the daughter of the last Lancaster king and defeated the house of York. What any of this has to do with the opera is mostly the historical background, the story mostly concerns itself with Henry Clifford, a Lancastrian, whose father died in battle in 1476. The five primary characters are based on real historical figures and there really was an Anne St. John who married Henry Clifford whose father was banished by her husband because they fought on opposite sides in the War of the Roses. Because I don’t want to have to write St. John constantly I will instead use Lord John and Lady Alice (her given name was Alice, although this isn’t really utilized in the libretto) after the setting section.

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SETTING: England, 1476 to 1487 but telescoped to three years rather than eleven. Henry (tenor) and his mother Lady Clifford (soprano) wait for news of Lord Clifford who is fighting for Lancaster. They are met by Lady St. John (mezzo-soprano) who is apparently a witch, and whose husband, Lord John St. John (baritone), is fighting for York. When Lord Clifford falls in battle, Lord St. John comes to confiscate the Clifford estate and arrest Henry, but at the behest of all of the women (including his fiancee Anne St. John, the soprano daughter of Lord and Lady St. John) Henry disappears disguised as a friar. Three years later Henry is discovered by Lord St. John in an enchanted meadow when he follows the three women, and challenges the young man to a duel. In the end St. John gives him the choice of death or turning to the York side but Henry Tudor wins the war at the battle of Bosworth for his Lancaster wife and St. John is banished by Henry. The only other character of any importance is the Clifford servant Colin (baritone)

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: A room in Clifford Castle. (59 minutes)

0: The opera opens with a seven minute long prelude * is more of an orchestral exercise and lacks a unified tune. It is divided into three movements, the first of three minutes which starts out with a gentle medieval interval in the woodwinds (which acts as a framing device) before moving on to agitation and then dying down. The second of just under two minutes starts off with a regal brass tune, turning to despair, then dies down. The third of just over two minutes is more agitation at first before ending with the woodwind interval from the beginning.

7: Sloes Are Blossoming In The Hedges The opening female chorus ** seems a little dim (with a shuffling tune) at first but when the men show up it gets a bit of a lift. Lady Clifford and Henry encounter each other, both awaiting news of the battle in which Lord Clifford is fighting (references to the despair theme from the prelude).

14: O, Mother, Why Didst Thou Deny My Longing For The Fray? Henry asks his mother why she forbade him from fighting in the battle with his father in a sad and forlorn duet * which quickly turns into a longish orchestral movement. The female chorus returns briefly and then

20: Oh Happy Days When We Were Young Lady Alice arrives and she and Lady Clifford reminisce about how when they were young the world was so much better than now, and we get one glorious tune from Lady Clifford ** which goes on for a weirdly long time  and in four different iterations. Eventually Henry interrupts the two old women to declare that Lady Alice is a witch (this is the only plot forwarding that occurs in the first half-hour of the opera, so enjoy it). Little is referenced of the fact that Anne, the daughter of Lady Alice, is engaged to Henry or that they are all on opposites sides in this whole War of the Roses thing.

29: All is Lost! A messenger arrives declaring that the battle has been lost and Lord Clifford killed. This prompts some vigorous chorusing from the returning Clifford troops *. Another orchestral movement ensues after the women and Henry are informed of the death of Lord Clifford.

32: Sir John, Saint John Approaches! Colin warns that Lord John comes to confiscate the Clifford estate and arrest Henry. Mass panic ensues *. Colin goes into the narrative of how Lord Clifford died (sedate).

37: Pray For The Soul Of A Chieftan Departed! The chorus chants a chromatic requiem (a cappella) for Lord Clifford ***.

40, 43: To Arms!/Away! Away! The mood is broken by Henry crying out violently for arms to avenge his father **, but Lady Clifford tries to stop him and tells him rather to flee * (this becomes a common solution for characters in this opera). Lady Alice tells Henry about her daughter Anne, but he orders her away.

48, 54: Sweet Are The Visions/March with the King Anne arrives with a sweet dreamlike song with choral backing ** as she convinces Henry to flee. Much of the rest of the act is just the bustle of disgusting Henry and making sure he escapes before the arrival of Lord John. Lady Clifford entrusts Henry to Colin and the two males depart. More orchestral envelopment as Lady Clifford awaits Lord John. The arrival of the Yorkist forces is rather underwhelming if a little menacing and Lord John is only helped out slightly by the orchestral effects, which have a slightly otherworldly effect to them.

57: Safe! Safe Beyond The Seas! The act ends with an ensemble chorus * which is updated Donizetti.

ACT 2: An enchanted valley, three years later. (41 minutes)

0, 6, 10 15: Woe Is Me To Love A Fairy!/Sweet Are The Visions The act opens with a fifteen minute long ballet sequence ** which is broken up in the middle as Henry remarks on living among the fairies in a way which to the modern ear can only lead to ironic laughter *.  Much of the music is random ramblings of neo-Mendelssohn, at least to me, although others like it for its originality. The music is gentle enough. There is a second dance which is slightly better *, at least it seems danceable! Yet another chromatic a cappella chorus comes on in the background as Anne arrives with her regal dreamlike music ** and Henry thinks she is a fairy as well, but no she is flesh and blood!

18, 27: Lovely Vision, Dream Delightful Perhaps it is with this eight-and-a-half minute love duet that the opera fully flowers ***. For once the music and the dramatic action line up and traces of Spanish flare and passion creep in. Lady Alice arrives and persuades the kids that she wants them to wed. A chorus of outlaws is heard in the distance *, grows in intensity and are acknowledged by Colin and Henry.

31, 35, 39: When The Breezes Are Still/My Son! They Come To Seek Thee!/Run to Me! A third ballet **, better still than the ones before it and including a strong second section. A chorus comes dreamily in ***, but eventually get interrupted by Lady Clifford who comes frantically to warn her son that Lord John has discovered his disguise after three years pretending to be a shepherd **. The stormy chorus of Yorkists comes on and the act ends with a two minute long attempt at a Verdian ensemble ** which is menacing enough but a little clunky. Nevertheless a good finish for the act as the men challenge each other and Henry is arrested by Lord John.

ACT 3: A room in the Castle of St. John. (41 minutes)

0, 7: A brief but warlike prelude begins the act * There is then an even more brief chorus of soldiers and then more orchestral interluding. Lord John reads over a dispatch about Henry Tudor taking over leadership of the Lancaster forces. Fearing defeat, he calls upon his wife and asks her to use her magical powers to give him victory at the up coming battle of Bosworth. She refuses ** in a fiery arietta.

10: Lady, ‘Tis The Trysting Hour! Henry sings a sad song from his cell **.

13: ‘Tis I, Sweet Friend! To Thee I Bend! The stormy second duet as Henry and Anne encounter each other ***.

21: My Shepherd Lord, I Wish Thee Joy! Lord John gives up to the love his daughter has for the enemy: if Henry will join him he will give his blessing to their marriage **. Henry is on the fence about this.

27: Shall Loyalty To Phantom Right Anne gets a brief arioso expressing her hope that Henry will change his mind so they can wed *, it turns into an angry trio ending in the idea that the roses shall unite! 

31: Remember Towton! Lady Clifford arrives ** and reminds Henry that his father died at Towton fighting against the Yorkists. There is a struggle for the soul of Henry between Lord John, Anne, and Lady Clifford.

37: Not Mine Vengeance! The playout **: suddenly a harald arrives with the news that Henry Tudor has won and now it is the St. John estate that is forfeit to Henry Clifford. Lord John is banished by Henry, which garners a negative reaction from Anne, and the couple is wed amid general rejoicing from everyone else. The end.

COMMENTS:

The overall effect of Henry Clifford is a combination of the austere medieval and a hybrid late-Verdi or even Strauss-esque lyricism tinged with the influence of either Wagner (the horns!) or Massenet and Gounod (I am not sure, perhaps all three!). It is extremely slow moving, with very little if any action occurring in the opera at all. The plot makes no sense and the magical elements are laughable. It is also rather un-engaging. The score gives the overall impression of parody, and there are few original melodies in nearly two and a half hours of music, much of which is highly predictable to someone like me with exposure to a lot of different 19th century operas. And yet in terms of its compositional complexity and technique, it is actually a masterwork! The vocal writing for the title tenor is extremely challenging, with massive interval leaps, and the two soprano roles of Anne St. John and Lady Clifford are no less difficult. I am not as impressed with the writing for the two baritones or the mezzo. The best numbers are the two love duets and two a cappella choruses. The orchestration is masterfully handled for a first-time opera composer, particularly the woodwinds. But I just don’t find myself loving this opera. A beta.

6 thoughts on “Isaac Albeniz: Henry Clifford (1895)

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