The revival of Isaac Albeniz's operas constitutes an admirable undertaking, and this issue of Henry Clifford is a major addition to the catalogue. I may be in the minority, however, when I find this opera even more satisfying overall than Decca's very successful recording of Merlin (though that recording sported an even stronger cast). Henry Clifford is set during the War of the Roses and is, just as Merlin, in English - in fact, just as in Merlin, the music is surprisingly devoid of the Spanish folk music element that characterizes Albeniz's piano music for instance. But the music is no less ravishing for that.
Henry Clifford, which was composed in 1893-95, has not managed to retain a toehold in the repertoire. That isn't really a surprise - Albeniz's collaborator was once again the millionaire banker Francis Burdett Money-Coutts (ok, so this was the first attempt - Merlin is 11 years later), and the quality of the libretto is, shall we say, somewhat variable (but not really as consistently horrible as some commentators have claimed, especially if you are able to take something of an ironic distance). In any case, the work, composed in a style drawing on Grand opera and Wagner, is full of beautiful, soaring arias, rousing ensembles and stirringly evocative, superbly scored orchestral passages (in fact, the gorgeous orchestral passages may just be the work's most magnificent parts). The third act is musically speaking the tautest, but the first two are nevertheless more immediately enjoyable.
Among the consistently fine cast of soloists, Aquiles Machado stands out with a ravishingly sung, splendidly characterized performance. Among the other roles, one sometimes notices that the singers are a little strained (the vocal parts are by no means easy). If the male roles come across as better overall, it is however probably mostly due to the fact that their roles are somewhat more convincingly written (some of the text, especially text sung by the females, is indeed appallingly silly) and the music slightly more skillfully written for the voices. The recording is a live one, but there are no intruding noises, and the sound is warm and clear although the soloists are not always perfectly balanced relative to each other. Overall, however, and despite some caveats, this is a recording that ought to be heard and treasured by any lover of late romantic opera.