WORKS: Henry Clifford
PERFORMER: Aquiles Machado, Alessandra Marc, Carlos Álvarez, Jane Henschel, Ana María Martínez; Madrid SO & Chorus/ José de Eusebio
CATALOGUE NO: 473 937-2
If ever there were a case for opera sung unintelligibly in a language one doesn’t understand, then this semi-mystical curiosity set in England during the Wars of the Roses and peopled with aristocrats, gnomes and fairies is it. Albéniz’s patron, the financier and ‘poet’ Francis Burdett Money-Coutts is surely a contender for the clumsiest, perhaps worst, librettist of all time. Sensibly, the opera’s only performances, at the Liceu in Barcelona in 1895, were given in Italian. But this world-premiere recording opts for the words as Money-Coutts contrived them. (‘Who for pleasure may do treason,/Sell for treasure heart and reason’ is a typically meaningless couplet.) And sung by a largely Spanish cast, in heavily accented English, often mispronounced for the sake of a rhyme, the result is an unintentional hoot. It’s a shame, for though it’s musically sometimes schmaltzy and repetitive, it’s also melodic, chromatically rich, occasionally inventive and unburdened by the cod-Wagnerian ambitions that sink his subsequent and better-known (inasmuch as this team has already recorded and staged it) Arthurian fantasy, Merlin. Albéniz’s chief operatic champion, the conductor José de Eusebio has assembled a strong cast. Aguiles Machado is heroic, touchingly ardent and admirably serious in the absurd title role (though he could have done with a stricter language coach). Ana María Martínez, as the love interest Annie, is sweet-voiced, characterful, secure and serene. And Jane Henschel and Carlos Álvarez are on commanding form as her parents. But ultimately it’s the orchestra that takes the honours, not least the evocative, sometimes ethereal woodwind and the burnished brass.