Of the substantial musical output of Camille Saint-Saëns in just about every genre large or small, most music lovers know only a small portion: the third (Organ) symphony, the third violin concerto, the firsts cello concerto, the second (of five) piano concertos, the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso for violin and orchestra, the playful Carnival of the Animals, a handful of chamber music scores, and the opera Samson et Dalila.. But I quite possibly rediscovered his single greatest work the grand opera Henri VIII in a bracing production this week in the Sosnoff Theater of Bard College as part of the Summerscape Festival for 2023.
Saint-Saëns had already composed four operas—most notably his first, Samson et Dalila—but had not been able to get a performance at the Paris Opéra, the most prestigious house in Europe. The Opéra had refused Samson et Dalila because of its Biblical plot (the same thing happened in the United States for decades; it was performed unstaged, like an oratorio). So when the Opéra director offered him a libretto that had originally been prepared for Gounod, Saint-Saëns accepted it, undertaking a study of English history and doing research in Buckingham Palace to find an English tune that he could work into the score.
Léonce Détroyat and Paul-Armand Silvestre had originally based their collaborative libretto on a play by Calderón, La cisma in Inglaterra (The Schism in England), a subject that might appeal to the Spanish playwright, since a Spanish princess was Henry’s first queen. But Saint-Saëns was also interested in the relationship between the first two wives of Henry VIII, Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. To that end the revised libretto drew somewhat from Shakespeare. A strictly fictional element in the libretto posited that Anne had previously been in love with the Spanish ambassador, Don Gómez de Feria, whom she had presumably met earlier in France. These four characters rounded out a basic vocal quartet—Catherine (soprano), Anne (mezzo), Gómez (tenor), and Henry VIII himself (baritone). The cast, of course, is much larger: the members of Henry’s court, churchmen, nobles, and ladies, plus the chorus representing many aspects of the court, were represented by singers with clear and expressive voices, well projected over the orchestra to tell the story clearly.
But there is far more in this opera, planned on the grand scale for the Opéra and effectively presented at Bard, even if the striking Sosnoff Theater is not quite to the Parisian scale. The designer, Bruno de Lavenėre, made extraordinary use of chain curtains that could be adjusted to change the spaces flexibly, a steeply raked central platform, and video projections designed by Studio AE (Ėtienne Guiol with Thomas Ocampo) to suggest architectural features evoking the period. Christoph Chaupin’s chiaroscuro lighting effects effectively shone on scenes of festivity as well as scenes of foreboding. Alain Blanchot designed the complexly detailed costumes and Anika Seitu made much of hair and makeup.
Saint-Saëns’s music made the most wonderful impression. Early in his career the composer had been a proponent of modern trends such as Wagner and Liszt. But by the time he came to write Henri VIII, his fifth opera, he had begun to withdraw from strict adherence to the principles of those masters. What may strike the knowledgeable listener most, from the overture onward, indeed, is how little influence seems to come from The Ring or Tristan. Rather than fusing the orchestral families into a stew of swirling sonorities, Saint-Saëns tended to keep them pure—rather extended passages of the woodwinds suggesting springtime colors, for example, or assertive brasses for regal pronouncements.
The full orchestral sonorities did not overshadow the vocal lines, but rather, supported them in ways that allowed viewers with good French tounderstand the words clearly (though, of course, supertitles were in evidence). Of course Botstein must be granted some of the responsibility for the success of the sensitivity support of the singers, as well as for the subtleties of the timbres his excellent players projected.
The plot of the opera focuses on two aspects of life at Henry’s court: his growing infatuation with Anne Boleyn, who knows perfectly well that refusing to yield to the king’s desires will put her in a better position than that of mistress; and Henry’s impatience to arrange a divorce (with the approval of the Pope) from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, who has failed to give him a male heir.
The arrival of the new Spanish ambassador to England, Don Gómez (Josh Lovell), who is in love with Anne Boleyn sets the action going. The Duke of Norfolk (Harold Wilson) warns him of the King’s infatuation with Anne. Because of it, letters expressing the affection between Anne and Gómez are potentially dangerous. This plot element, though purely fictitious, will play an important part at the opera’s close. Henri (Alfred Walker) greets the new ambassador. He has learned from his queen that Gómez nourished a secret passion; Henry approves, though the queen has not informed him that the ambassador’s unnamed love is Anne Boleyn (Lindsay Ammann). The king is increasingly anxious to learn of the Pope’s reaction to his argument for divorce, though he admits that his real desire has less to do with his ardor than with international politics. The final main character, Catherine of Aragon (Amanda Woodbury), appears in the last part of Act I, where she pretends to be introduced to Anne Boleyn, whom she already knows. Henry attempts to flirt with Anne while an execution that he had ordered takes place ooffstage. The confrontations of successive pairs of characters makes for an intense string of scenes.
Act II continues the duet between the principals with major developments. First Gómez fears that Anne has betrayed his love for her, which is now a danger. Henry again attempts to persuade Anne to love him. When she refuses to be his mistress (as her sister had been previously), Henry finally persuades her by saying: “Not mistress; wife and queen.” Anne agrees to this improvement to her condition. The two women now encounter one another in a duet of remarkable intensity in which Catherine’s criticism motivates Anne to declare that she will be queen. The papal legate (Christian Zaremba) has arrived to report the Pope’s decision, but Henry puts him off.
The magnificent third act, often omitted in the early years (the Opéra demanded cuts that Saint-Saëns, understandably, refused to make), focuses on the question of the divorce. Henry tells the Earl of Surrey (Rodell Rosel) that he does not wish to meet the papal legate. Anne begs him to renounce this plan, but he only asks her whether she has another love; she denies it. Norfolk informs him that the legate demands to meet, predicting serious international consequences if Henry opposes him.
The spectacular Synod scene, called to address the issue of the king’s divorce, in which the participants make their cases, contitutes one of the finest acts in all Grand Opera. Henry cites a passage from Leviticus forbidding a man to marry his dead brother’s wife (Catherine’s marriage had been arranged with Henry’s older brother Arthur when the expected future king had died; the wedding was then arranged to go ahead with the younger brother, newly established as the future monarch). Catherine pleaded nobly, asserting her fidelity, noting that the Pope had blessed their union, despite Leviticus. Gómez warns that setting aside the Spanish-born queen would become a cause for war. The synod is outraged, deciding to side with Henry and the decision of the Archbishop of Canterbury (Kevin Thompson) that the marriage of Henry and Catherine is broken—whereupon the legate enters to insist on its continuation. Henry proclaims himself the head of the new Church of England; the legate excommunicates him.
In the final act, Henry is still tormented by doubts about Anne’s presumed lover. Catherine is failing in her residence, Kimbolton Castle. Gómez comes with a message for the king. Anne speaks with him alone, wondering whether Catherine might reveal their former love. She is not fully reassured to learn that he has burned all but one of their letters; Catherine holds the remaining one, which had persuaded him to become the Spanish ambassador. In the final, intense tableau, Anne begs Catherine to forgive her, but tries at the same time to get the letter (which Catherine has concealed in a prayer book for Gómez. Henry and Gómez enter; the king asks Catherine for proof of Anne’s infidelity, but in a noble gesture, she refuses to give him anything and dies in despair. Henry flies once again into a rage, promising that if Anne proves unfaithful, her head will fall.
The ending is somewhat abrupt, though, of course, everyone in the audience is aware of Anne’s fate before arriving at a performance. What makes Henri VIII such a satisfying opera is the interaction of the two principal women intertwining with the desires of the king’s twofold concerns—passion and the birth of a male heir. Alfred Walker’s dramatic balancing act between the alluring passion of the lover and the forceful demands of the monarch limns the range of Henry’s character boldly. Anne’s attempt to evade Henry’s invitation to be his lover (while maintaining her earlier affection for Gómez) changes suddenly at Henry’s promise to make her his queen, after which she exhibits quite different character traits, beautifully projected by Lindsay Amman. The richest characterization of all is that of Catherine, whose steadfast marital love in spite of the way Henry treats her, and her final noble gesture of withholding the document that would be Anne’s downfall, make her scenes among the most powerful. Amanda Woodbury becomes the most haunting character by the time the curtain falls.
After the opera’s premiere in 1883, it remained in the repertoire for about four decades, to just about the time of its composer’s death. Since then it has rarely been heard, and even more rarely staged [Boston’s Odyssey Opera did it in concert form in 2019. BMInt review HERE]. This is a shame, because it clearly deserves to be placed on the boards at least in the large houses suited to the scope of grand opera. I can easily imagine it back at the Opéra, of course, but also, perhaps, in London, New York, Vienna, or Milan. Leon Botstein’s decision to mount a fully staged production, and one so beautifully designed, acted, and sung, deserves our gratitude.
Steven Ledbetter is a freelance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.
After having heard Friday’s performance, the publisher wishes to add his agreement that this opera stands at the highest level of polymath Saint-Saëns’s achievements in so many forms. What other composer could have perfumed a Renaissance fanfare with mild whiffs of Tristan and snatches of Halévy? Leon Botstein’s choice to revive this opera should certainly bring it to the attention of big houses.
On this afternoon we heard some great singing from the principals. The biggest ovation went to tenor Josh Lovell, whose Don Gómez rang out with fresh, bright ardency. Soprano Amanda Woodbury showed power, refinement of tone, and strong character development as Catherine. By the time she dropped her incriminating note in the real stage fire at the end, she had made an indelible impression. Anne Boleyn came across as a sinister schemer especially in those throbbing chest tones of Lindsay Ammann. Henri VIII commanded of course. In the person of Alfred Walker, he did so with gleaming high Gs and the ability to lighten and darken his colorations to correspond with the mood of the ambivalent monarch. He embodied the role with conviction.
And more than just maintaining balance between pit and stage, Botstein got his American Symphony Orchestra, 65-players-strong, to breathe with the singers; he put across the controlled Gallic passion to marvelous effect. From our front-row-center seats, we enjoyed elegant solos from concertmaster Cyrus Beroukim, and principals Eugene Moore, cello; Amir Farsi, flute; and indeed, all the section leaders.
The staging included many unusual and brilliant effects. To begin with, miles of stainless-steel bead chain draped the stage in multiple planes, serving as scrim, cyclorama, and many tailored drops in between. Onto those layers Studio AE (Ėtienne Guiol with Thomas Ocampo) projected striking moving and still images, including, fractilating architecture, evocative prerecorded silhouettes, and an absolutely brilliant moment when precisely animated fingers of light traced the Gothic tracery in the Synod scene. The morphing circle of light which sometimes became a department store shoplifting mirror, did not make its meanings comprehensible. FLE