The music by Spanish composer Isaac Albeniz for this first of a projected trilogy of operas based on English Arthurian legend is wonderful. It is marvellously lyrical and often very beautiful. This is particularly true of the first 35 minutes of the 50 minute third act. The major part of Act 3 is essentially an extended ballet starting with Merry Maytime and the seduction of Guenevere by Lancelot as engineered by Morgan Le Fay. This then leads into the beguiling of Merlin himself by his servant Nivian. The music is absolutely beautiful and genuinely seductive. The strongest Spanish flavour is present in the dance music for the elves and gnomes during the seduction of Merlin. The opera as a whole, however, has hints of Spanish music but it is really much more rooted in the wider European late-romantic operatic tradition. There are clear links particularly to French opera, Massenet especially comes to mind, but there are also hints of Tchaikovsky particularly in the many dance sequences, and just occasionally a suggestion of late Victorian English music.
There is a significant problem, however, in that the libretto was written by the rich Englishman who commisioned Albeniz to compose this opera and two further ones which were never completed (Lancelot and Guenevere). Quite how Albeniz was inspired to write such lovely music based on the libretto by Francis Burdett Money-Coutts is a mystery. The libretto is in English and it is doggerel verse at its very worst. The need to write rhyming couplets (why ?) appears to have forced the author, who was clearly no poet, into constructing the most awkward and often incomprehensible or meaningless sentences. Coupled to this the use of quasi-antique language, presumably to give a sense of 'history', compounds the problem and makes much of the libretto laughable. Fortunately, if one chooses to turn off the subtitles it is possible to listen to the music and largely ignore the words.
On the whole the production from the Teatro Real in Madrid is excellent. It is visually very impressive, using excellent lighting, wonderful costumes and good props in inspired and interesting ways. The sound is also excellent and the performance is musically very good with the one drawback that the two female principals do not match the quality of their male counterparts. All the men are excellent, even those playing the minor parts. Their English pronunciation is very good. Merlin and Arthiur are played by native English-speakers but almost all the other men are played by Spanish singers who pronounce the English text very well indeed. David Wilson-Johnson is outstanding as Merlin, both vocally and dramatically. However, both Eva Marton as Morgan Le Fay and Carol Vaness as Nivian are not in good voice. They both tend to be shrill, with a very wide vibrato which is often unpleasant. Eva Marton in particular, who was 60 when this was recorded in 2003, is well past her best. There are occasional hints of the quality that used to be, but often her singing is very unpleasant. Her enunciation of the English text is awful, though this might be considered an advantage with such a dreadful libretto. She is actually better in the scenes where she is not singing and is simply acting the part of the malevolent Morgan. Carol Vaness is slightly better, there is more body in the voice, but it is still very often edgy and unpleasant. Fortunately the men sing far more of the opera than the ladies.
The sound is excellent Dolby Digital stereo or surround 5.1. The picture is NTSC and 16:9 format. There are optional subtitles in English, Spanish German and French. The opera lasts 2 hours and 34 minutes. The extra 30 minutes on the DVD consists of interviews with the conductor Jose de Eusebio (who was responsible for reconstructing the full score), Eva Marton and David Wilson-Johnson.