Albéniz completed Merlin in 1902, immediately set out on Lancelot, dropped it halfway and left Guinevere untouched. The texts were by an eccentric Brit named Francis Burdett Money-Coutts, who had also become Albéniz’s patron; they are in a highfalutin synthetic Olde English beside which Tolkien reads like this morning’s Times. Merlin deals with Arthur’s arrival and marriage to Guinevere (a mute dancer) and the old wizard’s overthrow at the hands of Morgan le Fay. On a BBC/Opus Arte DVD of a 2003 production from Madrid’s Teatro Real, in a revised and apparently cleaned-up orchestration by José de Eusebio, the opera’s three acts run close to an hour apiece, not far behind Parsifal — which it somewhat resembles in, say, a John Williams rewrite.
Of the Albéniz we know and love there isn’t a smidge — until, that is, late in the third act, when Morgan and her gnomes start planning their sinister derring-do, the orchestra breaks out in something close to a seguidilla, and finally — too late — we’re back in Albéniz country. Too late, alas, also applies to major cast members: veteran Brünnhilde Eva Marton as Morgan le Fay and Carol Vaness as her accomplice Nivian, both of whom have sung on better days. The performance is identified as the world premiere of the Eusebio orchestration, and gets a snazzy production at Madrid’s opera house, full of fancy lighting effects and a lit-up Excalibur straight out of Star Wars. Merlin is exactly the right opera for the collector who thinks he already has everything but longs to be contradicted.