Merlin – Opera in a prelude and three acts to a libretto by Siegfried Lipiner [Original Version, 1886]
Merlin – Robert Künzli
Viviane– Anna Gabler
Lancelot – Brian Davis
Demon – Frank von Hove
Morgana – Gabriele Popescu
Modred – Daniel Behle
Arthur – Sebastian Holecek
Glendower – In-Sung Sim
Gawain – Michael Mantaj
Bedwyr – Werner Rollenmüller
Philharmonischer Chor München
Recorded 13-19 May 2009 in Max-Littmann-Saal of the Regentenbau, Bad Kissingen
Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell
Reviewed: June 2010
CD No: PROFIL EDITION GÜNTER HÄNSSLER PH09044
Duration: 3 hours 7 minutes
Karl (Carl) Goldmark (1830-1915) has a tenuous hold on the consciousness of even the keenest music-lovers and opera enthusiasts and is probably best-known for “Die Königin von Saba”, although even this is a work rarely heard and even less rarely staged. His Rustic Wedding Symphony and First Violin Concerto are also occasionally heard.
Profil has here released a satisfying world premiere recording of the original version of his Arthurian opera “Merlin”, a drama which concentrates very much on the story of the wizard and his downfall brought about by his fateful love for Viviane. There is the backdrop of King Arthur’s court and the various warring factions within it, including the ambitious Modred. Another pivotal character is the Demon, Merlin’s slave since the wizard’s youth, who is scheming to free himself and exact revenge by ensnaring Merlin. Throw in battles, lovers’ misunderstandings and a hefty dose of magic and one realises that there is plenty of plot and scope for character delineation.
Goldmark certainly delivers much to enjoy and thrill; some of the orchestral effects are post-Wagnerian with echoes of “Lohengrin” and “Tannhäuser” in the marches and choruses, but the music also has ancestry in the music of the Romantic operas of Marschner and Weber. There is effective use of motifs but development of thematic material is limited, but much compensation is afforded by the melodic invention and continuous changes of pace and mood.
Conducting Philharmonie Festiva, its members playing with brio, is Gerd Schaller, who is evidently something of a champion of Goldmark and, it would appear, neglected operas in general. He brings pace and a sense of the theatrical to the performance and seems adept at illustrating its ancestry as described, and one senses that in less capable hands the work could have its longueurs. He certainly has done Goldmark proud.
Some individual roles have much to recommend themselves to singers. The Demon requires one of those cavernous Wagnerian basses, and is given some exciting declamatory passages over a rich orchestration. Merlin is not always the most gratefully written part – the tenor needs a voice a pretty heroic nature, but to show a lyrical and tender side in the love-music. Frank von Hove has the right openness of voice for the Demon and an attractively rich one at that, although pitch is occasionally unsteady, and a little more variety would have helped. He is certainly a presence though. Robert Künzli as Merlin helps keep the dramatic flame alight, and his singing is generally fluid and idiomatic. In the upper reaches and more dramatic moments he does betray moments of stress, but his account is nonetheless a good one.
It is perhaps Viviane who has the best part of all. It is written over a huge range and the singer needs to be able to deliver passages that require a secure coloratura technique as well as moments of long-breathed lyricism. The first singer of the role was Amalie Materna, who was Bayreuth’s first Brünnhilde in 1876, and who created Kundry in “Parsifal”. Materna started life as a soubrette and one can sense she that she must have retained some virtuosity despite the demands of Wagner! Anna Gabler sings Viviane on this recording and rather steals the show. Her voice encompasses the role’s need for both delicacy and power, and she varies timbre effectively according to dramatic circumstance. Up aloft when singing dramatically there are occasional moments where the vibrato becomes a little intrusive, but overall the interpretation is conceived convincingly. The other roles are more conventional and receive solid rather than inspiring performances, though Gabriela Popescu’s rich mezzo is an asset as the prophesying Morgana. The chorus is superb and disciplined.
Profil’s recording is spacious and there is excellent balance between voices and orchestra allowing the best of their various parts admirable clarity. There is no constriction in the big moments either. The booklet presents a complete text in German, but no parallel translation in other languages, which is a pity. There is a detailed plot outline in English but little attempt has been made to place track numbers in the text to help those without German to follow the development. Schaller provides a useful essay, placing the opera in a historic and musical perspective.