Elfin Honey: Peter Conrad on How Arthurian Legend Is Lavishly Recreated in Madrid. (Opera)
Conrad, Peter, New Statesman (1996)
Music is international, because its language is the Esperanto of the emotions. But music is also defiantly national, and often prefers to speak local dialects. Composers late in the 19th century defined the identity of the new nation states: hence Verdi's rallying calls for Italian unification, Smetana's symphonic homage to Jan Hus and his slavophile warriors, or the encyclopaedic tour of Spanish culture - from religious festivities in Seville to raucous dance halls in proletarian Madrid - conducted by Isaac Albeniz in his piano suite Iberia.
Albeniz, however, was a renegade. He stowed away on a ship to South America when he was only eight, and did not return home for five years; later, self-exiled because of his socialism and atheism, he based himself in London and Paris. But almost a century after his death, the country from which he fled is proudly reclaiming him. The Teatro Real in Madrid has spent half a million euros on the first staged performances of his grand opera Merlin, which its promoters -- led by the conductor Jose de Eusebio, who reconstructed the score -- regard as a national epic. The trouble is that the subject is British not Spanish, and the opera sets a libretto written in English.
Celtic myth suited Albeniz because of his infatuated Wagnerism: Tristan's ship is, after all, taking Isolde from Ireland to Cornwall. But in reality he had little choice in the matter. His librettist was his patron, Francis Burdett Money-Coutts, himself a dilettantist renegade who refused to work in his family's bank; the regular income he doled out saved Albeniz from a career as a wandering virtuoso pianist. Albeniz described the deal as a Faustian pact: it enabled him to compose, but dictated the nature of his compositions, requiring him to set Money-Coutts's soppily decadent poems and bloated historical dramas. Perhaps, not being a native English speaker, Albeniz was spared the knowledge of how woeful Money-Coutts's texts actually were. In their first opera, Henry Clifford, set during the Wars of the Roses, the mooning tenor has to deliver an aria that begins "Woe is me to love a fairy!", while a wretched mezzo-soprano must struggle with lines such as "Let me rampart with affection's force/The onward-curli ng billows of remorse." Listening to Merlin in Madrid, I was grateful for the notoriously blurred diction of opera singers.
Despite Money-Coutts's lumpish alliterations and limp-wristed metaphors, his version of the Arthurian myth has a quirky and subversive charm. With his mercantile connections, he was well placed to appreciate Shaw's interpretation of Wagner's Ring as a study of capitalism, a battle between plutocratic gods and their gnomish wage slaves, with Brunnhilde and Siegfried as the revolutionaries who try to upset the iniquitous regime. Merlin accordingly is a kind of financier, whose wand magics money -- which he deliciously rhymes with honey -- out of the earth. …