The opera was written between 1897 and 1902, the first of a projected trilogy of Arthurian operas commissioned by the librettist. After completing Merlin, Albéniz worked on the second part of the trilogy, Lancelot, in 1902–03, but broke off work and did not complete it before his death in 1909. He did not even begin the final part, Guinevere (Barulich 2001).
Albéniz is best known for his piano works, and especially for the collection Iberia, 12 piano "impressions" published in four books of three pieces each (1906, 1907, 1907, and 1908), which incorporate Spanish folk idioms into highly virtuosic piano playing with a turn in the last two books to the influence of the pianist Joaquín Malats (Barulich 2001). At the start of the 20th century, he tried very hard to establish himself as an opera composer. Living in London, he composed three operas in collaboration with Money-Coutts (heir to a banking fortune, and Albéniz's sole patron from July 1894 onward), of which Merlin was the most ambitious. It was intended as the first part of a huge trilogy of Arthurian legends, loosely based on Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur (Barulich 2001).
It has some Wagnerian influence, with several orchestral and choral interludes, and two long preludes. Money-Coutts as the librettist, under the spell of Richard Wagner, produced prose that prompted one critic, reviewing the staged premiere in 2003, to observe:
Money-Coutts's text would take pride of place in any collection of the world's worst opera librettos: it is couched in an achingly archaic Olde Englishe and relentlessly rhymed. It must be hard to sing lines like "When flow'rets of the marigold and daisy are enfolden, and wingless glowmoth stars of love englimmer all the glades" with anything approaching a straight face. (Clements 2003)
The only portion of Merlin that Albéniz heard performed with full orchestra during his life was the opening prelude. The opera was performed by vocalists with piano accompaniment in 1905, but the full score languished until a truncated version with the text translated into Spanish was staged at the Tívoli Theatre in Barcelona on 18 December 1950. The complete opera with the original English libretto was premiered in concert form at the Auditorio Nacional in Madrid on 20 June 1998 (Barulich 2001), and a studio recording with Plácido Domingo singing the part of King Arthur was made in 2000, conducted by Albeniz-specialist conductor José de Eusebio. The success of the recording led to the first staging in its entirety in 2003, 101 years after its completion (Clements 2003). It was premiered in Madrid's Teatro Real, with magnificent sets and scenography, conducted by José de Eusebio and directed by John Dew.
|Role||Voice type||Premiere Cast,
28 May 2003,
(Conductor: José de Eusebio)
|Morgan le Fay||contralto||Éva Marton|
|King Arthur||tenor||Stuart Skelton|
|King Lot of Orkney||bass||Victor Garcia Sierra|
|Sir Ector de Maris||baritone||Juan Tomás Martínez|
|Sir Pellinor||baritone||Federico Gallar|
|Archbishop of Canterbury||bass||Stephen Morscheck|
The plot is essentially a retelling of Arthurian legend with some dramatic changes for the stage.
- Albéniz: Merlin: Carlos Alvarez, Plácido Domingo, Jane Henschel, Ana María Martínez, Madrid Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jose de Eusebio (Decca 467 096-2)
- Albéniz: Merlin: David Wilson-Johnson, Éva Marton, Stuart Skelton, Carol Vaness, Angel Odena, Victor Garcia Sierra, Angel Rodriguez, Juan Tomas Martinez, Federico Gallar, Eduardo Santamaria. Madrid Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jose de Eusebio (2003, BBC/Opus Arte DVD OA 0888 D)
- Anon. 2000. "King Arthur in Music: Camelot Comeback In Spain". CelticTwilight.com. (Accessed 9 June 2010).
- Barulich, Frances. 2001. "Albéniz, Isaac (Manuel Francisco)". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers.
- Clements, Andrew. 2003. "Black Magic". The Guardian (Monday, 2 June ).
- Webber, Christopher. 2001. "Isaac Albéniz (rev. José de Eusebio) Merlin". MusicWeb (January). (Accessed 8 June 2010).
- Woolf, Peter Grahame. [n.d.] "Albéniz: Merlin, conducted by José de Eusebio on DVD and CD" Musical Pointers website. (Retrieved 10 June 2010).