“Decca's release of its outstanding recording of Albéniz's Merlin marked a turning-point in our appreciation of this Spanish composer, best known for his colourful nationalistic piano music.
José de Eusebio, conductor and force behind that project, followed it with a full staging of the opera in Madrid; this DVD is the result.
The staging certainly adds to one's involvement.
When you can see the young Arthur drawing Excalibur from the stone, the Wagnerian echoes become clearer, even if Albéniz is much more diatonic. John Dew's direction sets out the story clearly, and the stylised sets and costumes are medieval enough to create the right atmosphere, but with a touch of science fiction.
Though the cast isn't as starry as that on disc (with Plácido Domingo as King Arthur), there's obvious benefit in having English speakers in three of the principal parts, David Wilson-Johnson commanding and noble as Merlin, with the American tenor, Stuart Skelton as Arthur, powerful rather than subtle, and Carol Vaness, also American, as Nivian. The big snag is the singer who might have been counted the star, Eva Marton as the evil Morgan le Fay. The unsteadiness of her voice, so extreme that one can hardly tell what pitch she's aiming at, may convey the wickedness of the character. She acts convincingly, but is painful on the ear. Ángel Odena characterises her son Mordred well but also has bouts of unsteadiness; Victor Garcia Sierra, as King Lot of Orkney, is another wobbler.
Happily, the chorus work is first-rate, and Eusebio draws warmly committed playing from the Madrid Symphony Orchestra. With so rare an opera it's a pity that the booklet contains no synopsis, though there's compensation in having English subtitles available, even if that underlines the banality and incomprehensibility of the doggerel verses of Francis Burdett Money-Coutts's libretto. Outweighing any flaws, though, what shines out is the richness and variety of Albéniz's musical inspiration.”