Like Isaac Albéniz's recently revived masterpiece Merlin, Henry Clifford (1895) was composed at the behest of Albéniz's wealthy English patron Francis Burdett Money-Coutts, who bankrolled the project and authored the libretto. Henry Clifford comes three years before Merlin, and if it lacks the latter work's musical ambition and gripping dramatic narrative, Albéniz's individuality and compositional acumen are hardly less evident.
The libretto is based on historical figures and events surrounding the 15th-century War of the Roses, during which the Lancastrians and the Yorkists vied for the rule of England. After hearing the news of his father's death at the Battle of Towton, Young Henry Clifford, aRead more Lancastrian, vows to his mother, Lady Clifford, that he will avenge her loss. However, he is dissuaded by Lady Saint John (wife of Yorkist military leader Sir John Saint John), who tells him he is destined to marry her daughter, Annie, for whom Henry falls head over heels before fleeing into the wilderness just as Sir John Saint John comes to arrest him. After spending three years in exile disguised as a shepherd, Henry again encounters Annie, and the two share a passionate love duet. Sir John Saint John nearly convinces Henry to renounce his allegiance in order to win his daughter's hand, but Lady Clifford suddenly appears, crying "Remember Towton!", whereupon Henry affirms he would rather taste death than to be a traitor. News arrives of the Yorkists' final defeat at the Battle of Bosworth, and Sir John Saint John, who was about to have Henry executed, surrenders his sword. But Henry no longer desires vengeance, and instead spares his life, whereupon Henry is proclaimed the "shepherd lord".
Though most of the story's action takes place off stage, Albéniz had much dramatic dialog to contend with, to which he brought his brilliant melodic invention, colorful orchestration, and evocative scene painting. Certainly, the music bears obvious Wagnerian influence (especially in the persistent hunting-horn writing), but Albéniz's own musical personality peeks through in the score's lush harmonic palette and frequent "spicy" melodic turns.
Then there are those passages of exquisite beauty, such as Annie's Act 1 aria, and Act 2's opening ballet that could not have come from any other composer. The vocal writing also is highly original, with its challenging wide intervals and subtle shifts in rhythm. Lady Clifford's opening aria requires the soprano to sing full out at both extremes of her range, while much of Henry's music is virulently demonstrative.
The production features a well chosen cast. Tenor Aquiles Machado's voice is not particularly large, but he craftily uses it to project Henry's burning passion. Alessandra Marc offers strong singing as Lady Clifford, while Jane Henschel convincingly conveys Lady Saint John's inner turmoil. Sir John Saint John sounds appropriately menacing thanks to Carlos Álvarez's full, firm toned delivery. However, Ana Maria Martínez's angelically voiced Annie steals the show whenever she appears--though I suspect this has as much to do with Albéniz's gorgeous writing as it does her luminous singing. The remaining roles are all finely done, as is the choral work. Conductor José de Eusebio, who reconstructed the score, leads his Madrid forces in a powerful and persuasive performance.
As happens in many English-language opera recordings, much of the libretto is difficult to clearly discern. But considering Money-Coutts' rather stilted Victorian dialog, it's probably better to just read the libretto through and then sit back and enjoy the music. Decca's rich and reverberant recording places the singers in a natural acoustic with the orchestra. This is a decided disadvantage for the smaller voices, but it does recreate a realistic opera-house atmosphere. This recording is a handsome achievement, and yet another vindication of Albéniz's re-emerging reputation.
--Victor Carr Jr, ClassicsToday.com Read less
Works on This Recording
Henry Cliffordby Isaac Albeniz Performer:
Jane Henschel (Mezzo Soprano),
Aquiles Machado (Tenor),
Ana Maria Martinez (Soprano),
Christian Immler (Baritone),
Angel Rodriguez (Tenor),
Pedro Gilabert (Baritone),
Carlos Alvarez (Baritone),
Alessandra Marc (Soprano)
José De Eusebio
Madrid Symphony Orchestra,
Madrid Symphony Chorus
Period: Romantic Written: by 1895; Spain Language: Spanish