Albéniz: Merlin

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3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Albeniz
LABELS: Decca
WORKS: Merlin
PERFORMER: Plácido Domingo, Carlos Álvarez, Jane Henschel, Ana María Martínez; Spanish National Chorus, Madrid Community Chorus, Madrid SO/José De Eusebio
CATALOGUE NO: 467 096-2

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Such was the success Albéniz enjoyed in London that, in 1890, he moved there from Madrid. It’s not so surprising, then, that his opera Merlin, based on a libretto by his patron, the financier and ‘poet’ Francis Burdett Money Coutts, is in English. Completed in 1902, it wasn’t performed until 1950, when a Spanish-language version was staged in Madrid. They should have left it at that, given the hilarious awfulness of the text. But it was finally premiered in its original form in 1998. The work is a curiosity rather than a great discovery: pastiche Wagnerian in style, with its soupy chromaticism and overblown fervour; pretentious in its clumsy quotations of Gregorian chant; and unmistakably but inappropriately Iberian in its evocation of the Cornish court. The largely Spanish cast does what it can to salvage something from it. Domingo is still in remarkable voice and keeps admirably straightfaced given the nonsense (not helped by his thickly accented English) that he has to sing. And Carlos Álvarez’s commanding Merlin and Ana María Martínez’s sweet-voiced Ninian emerge with their dignity intact. But Jane Henschel’s Morgan is inclined to shrillness. And though the orchestra plays for all it’s worth, the score lets them down in the end.

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Claire Wrathall