Karl Goldmark: Merlin (1886)

Opera in three acts. Running Time: 3 hours 7 minutes.


As with Die Königin von Saba, here Goldmark is moving a bit more towards Wagner, yet only slightly. The decade between his first and second opera led to a composition that, although borrowing from Wagner even more heavily, is still within the Meyerbeerian grand opera of the mid-19th century (the opera is still divided into musical numbers), and Goldmark never abandons an Italianate vocal line in favor of Wagnerian parlando or melodrama. However, if Goldmark quotes Tannhauser in Saba here the dominate Wagnerian influences are Lohengrin, Meistersinger (King Arthur himself), Tristan und Isolde, and possibly Parsifal. And yet Beethoven and Mendelssohn are also easily detectable.

SETTING: Early Medieval Wales. Merlin (tenor) falls in love with Viviane (soprano) thus losing his magical powers and his slave Demon (bass) as a result of Fata Morgana (contralto). Meanwhile, Modred (tenor) the nephew of King Arthur (baritone) declares war and Lancelot (baritone) tires angrily to chase down Merlin in an attempt to save the day.



ACT 1: A rocky area with various gates before a large decorated tent in front of the royal castle, Pentecost. (78 minutes)

0: The opera opens with an eleven minute long prelude ** indebted to Tristan und Isolde. The first leitmotif is that of the Demon slave of Merlin, and this gets reshuffled along with themes for Love/Viviane/Merlin etc. Four minutes towards the end there is an unintentional quotation from Nabucco if you can spot it.

14: Damon! The opera itself opens with a recitative for Lancelot, the gatekeeper Glendower, and Merlin which is strongly reminiscent of Lohengrin as Lancelot bangs on the door of the tent to get Merlin to change the course of the battle by magic (the battle being lost by treachery). Merlin promises Lancelot victory. The first thing of note (other than a harp-accompanied arioso for Glendower and the obvious usage of very chromatic chords to denote Merlin) is when Merlin first summons the Demon **, who in turn summons a chorus of spirits off to defeat the Saxons and bring victory to the Celts (?). The Demon, alone, then spends around five minutes discussing how he hates his condition as the slave of Merlin, he wants to be free. And it is somewhat hard to not empathize with him.

26: Wer ruft mir? He calls up Morgana, who arrives in an erupting water spring **, followed by a long recitative of gossip in which she reveals to him that only the love of the most beautiful woman can destroy Merlin and free the Demon from his bondage. The Demon decides to find this most beautiful woman.

34: Hort ihr es klingen! A series of marches and mixed choruses for eight minutes as King Arthur arrives victorious after the battle **, all very good but none overtly catchy.

50, 61: Heil Dir, mein Konig/Halali! Halali! Arthur addresses the crowd (after being crowned with a plot-important wreath by his wife Genevra) for a very long time, in fact the whole eleven minutes is recitative punctuated with choral and orchestral interjections. Merlin eventually reveals that Bedwyr, one of the Knights of the Round Table, is the traitor who almost lost the battle for Arthur had Merlin not used magic. Bedwyr accuses Merlin of being in league with Satan, but is taken away amid angst from the chorus. The only exception is a rather dry song (but plot important) from Merlin praising Arthur towards the end using his magic harp *. Viviane arrives with her huntresses singing a silly hunting song (what else?) and Merlin sees her and instantly falls in love with her. They embark on a large passage of free arioso, which is to say, more recitative (although the Demon leitmotif abounds around this girl). Another highlight is when Viviane goes into the second and much longer go at her rather silly hunting song *.

64: Sei uns gegrusst Finally, Arthur ushers us into the glorious ensemble we have been waiting half and hour for ***. Merlin gives Viviane a laurel wreath to wear, and she touches his hand.

69: Hinweg! Merlin is left alone to think about Viviane *, but realizes that his magic harp no longer works after she touched his hand. The Demon reveals what has happened (that Merlin has had his magic zapped) and Merlin shouts at him angrily, Viviane believing that he is addressing her, and she storms off violently, throwing the wreath at him.

75: Lebwohl Merlin! The act finale **: the chorus comes back as Arthur himself ends up having to break up the argument and gives Merlin his wreath instead. Modred plots against Arthur as the curtain falls.

ACT 2: The Magic Garden and Temple of Merlin. (57 minutes)

3, 9: Von diese Statte/Dank Dir! After Modred plots with Bedwyr to overthrow the adventurous Arthur, the King gets a nice little arioso *, which returns into another flowering *. Arthur orders that Merlin use his magic eye to detect if Modred is committing treason, but because of the loss of his powers, Merlin can not detect the treachery in Modred.

13: Mein Heiligtum! Merlin is left alone to reflect to a rather agreeable orchestral accompaniment **.

16: Sie kommt! The Demon returns disguised as a wanderer and lures Viviane to the altar of Merlin in a remarkably beautiful scene *** in which he gives her a magic veil (not telling her that touching the brow of anyone with it will freeze them in place forever).

23: The Ghost Dance ***: at first a gentle composition, it moves on to a bit more oompah, then more gentle. Merlin returns and sees Viviane, discovering the veil in a bush (where it has landed) and the gate to his temple open, his suspects treachery. (Now the quotations from Tristan und Isolde become obvious).

36: Ich liebe dich! The ten-minute love duet * is an exercise in antagonism as the two quarrel with each other endlessly, but also admit their undying love for each other in the most energetically Wagnerian way (there are far too many quotes from Tristan here). Unless you are really into pseudo-Wagner, you will not like this, as it is too strong a parody.

50: Weh! Betrogen! The act finale **: Glendower shows up revealing the betrayal of Modred. Merlin tries to figure out how he had failed to realize the treachery. Viviane, innocently, covers Merlin with the veil, which causes him to be bound in fiery chains in one place, forever. The Demon laughs, Viviane screams in horror and collapses.

ACT 3: The Same, but now with a large boulder stage right. (54 minutes)

0, 6, 13, 26: Aus heil get Ruh/Has du am felsen The prelude * starts off with the Demon theme again, but this time in a minor, gloomy, form. Viviane, alone, contemplates what she has done and collapses from exhaustion. Morgana arrives and reveals her regret in her part in what has happened and how Viviane might be able to save Merlin in a Dream: Love Stronger than Death will give him salvation **. Viviane wakes up and is discovered by her maiden huntresses who embark on a dreamy chorus **. Viviane collapses in their arms and is taken away. There is a single, continuously agitated theme, but I can not tell if it is Wagner or Meyerbeer, yet it repeats over and over in this section. Merlin is discovery amid the mist by Lancelot who begs him to help Arthur once more **. Merlin breaks the chains by magic (at the cost of his life) in order to save Britain from the Saxon invaders, requesting only to see Viviane again afterwards, then he will die. He is transported to Viviane first, then to the battle.

29: Blüht auf, ihr Felsen! Viviane embarks on a surprisingly lovely aria as she waits for Merlin to return ***. A brilliant seven minutes, but she has no idea that Merlin is about to die and instead gathers her maidens for her wedding.

36: Kommt herab Suddenly, Arthur arrives with Lancelot and other soldiers with Merlin on a stretcher and Viviane realizes what has happened in a tender aria of despair **.

39: The Funeral March ***.

43: Hier haltet Still The finale ***: the Demon arrives to take the soul of Merlin (who is still alive but mortally wounded), but Viviane realizes what Morgana meant by Love Stronger than Death can Redeem: she has to kill herself (as the tool used by the Demon to destroy Merlin) in order to redeem Merlin from the Demon because the fight now isn’t between Merlin and the Demon, it is between the Demon and her! She stabs herself in the heart just before Merlin himself expires and falls upon his body, saving both their souls because this is opera, suicide is always the answer! Actually, the chorus tells us, love has won!


The problem with Merlin is that when it is good it is great, but when it is bad it is terribly inane if not deathly dull. In an attempt to act like Wagner, Goldmark engages in heavy usage of plot-forwarding recitative (as in on the level of Lohengrin), which can feel like they go on for longer than they do. These are not as tedious as in actual Wagner, but they can be long passages nevertheless and the score is overall not up the same level of inspiration as Die Konigin von Saba. There is also heavy quoting from both Der Ring and Tristan and possibly even Parsifal. This can get annoying after a while, especially in the second act. The plot is rather complicated, although the romantic sub-plot which runs everything can come off as infantile (as does the rather gossipy Morgana). The male characters are actually rather fascinating: The Demon is an ironically sympathetic character, and even as he tortures Merlin, our sympathies remain split rather brilliantly. Modred is a good villain, Lancelot a good side-kick, and Arthur a regal king. But Viviane is rather disappointing (as well as stupid) and the motivation Merlin has for being in love with her is very weak and the (albeit circumstantial) evidence that she is treacherous is overwhelming. Apart from his readiness to be destroyed because of Viviane, Merlin is actually a rather interesting and complex character. Viviane redeems herself, and the opera, towards the end as her music in the third act is better than anything else she has done before. And the redemption through death concept (which might have some sort of Judaic origin?) actually works here for once. But if the opera were cut by around half an hour, it would be better. B+.

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