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  • S. Lachterman

Saint-Saëns Henri VIII at Bard Summerscape 2023

Saint-Saëns Henri VIII at Bard Summerscape 2023. The compelling Grand Opera dramatizing King Henry VIII's turbulent years with Catherine d’Aragon, Anne Boleyn, and the Catholic Church. Bard College Summerscape 2003, July 30, 2023, Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.


Henri VIII

Music by Camille Saint-Saëns

Libretto by Léonce Détroyat and Paul-Armand Silvestre



Cast

Duke of Norfolk, Harold Wilson

Don Gómez de Feria, Josh Lovell

Henri VIII, Alfred Walker

Earl of Surrey, Rodell Rosel

Catherine d’Aragon, Amanda Woodbury

Anne Boleyn, Lindsay Ammann

Lady Clarence, Alaysha Fox

Cardinal Campeggio, the papal legate, Christian Zaremba

Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, Kevin Thompson

Garter King of Arms, Aaron Blake


American Symphony Orchestra

Conductor: Leon Botstein, Music Director


Bard Festival Chorale

Chorus Master: James Bagwell


Director: Jean-Romain Vesperini

Scenic Design: Bruno de Lavenère

Costume Design: Alain Blanchot

Lighting Design: Christophe Chaupin


Catherine and Henri
Amanda Woodbury (Catherine d'Aragon), Alfred Walker (Henri VIII) (c)Stephanie Berger


Henri VIII

Music by Camille Saint-Saëns

Libretto by Léonce Détroyat and Paul-Armand Silvestre



Cast

Duke of Norfolk, Harold Wilson

Don Gómez de Feria, Josh Lovell

Henri VIII, Alfred Walker

Earl of Surrey, Rodell Rosel

Catherine d’Aragon, Amanda Woodbury

Anne Boleyn, Lindsay Ammann

Lady Clarence, Alaysha Fox

Cardinal Campeggio, the papal legate, Christian Zaremba

Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, Kevin Thompson

Garter King of Arms, Aaron Blake


American Symphony Orchestra

Conductor: Leon Botstein, Music Director


Bard Festival Chorale

Chorus Master: James Bagwell


Director: Jean-Romain Vesperini

Scenic Design: Bruno de Lavenère

Costume Design: Alain Blanchot

Lighting Design: Christophe Chaupin



Henri VIII is Saint-Saëns “other” opera. The aria “Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix,” from Samson et Dalila, has an unsurpassed place in the French opera canon. While nothing from Henri VIII is as well-known, Saint-Saëns musical palette, nevertheless, is far richer here and is imbued with some flavor of early English atmosphere. Saint-Saëns incorporated his own ideas of dance music of the time. Act I opens with a stately pavane alternating in seriated consorts of brass, strings, and winds. Saint-Saëns borrowed freely from the works of William Byrd as well as keyboard tunes found in seventeenth-century anthologies even though these works postdate the historical events depicted in the opera by almost a century. However, there is an antique inflection of harmony, rhythm and melody that lulls the audience into a quasi-Henri VIII world. Hollywood has conditioned us to tolerate such mismatched early music sensibilities.


The brilliance of the opera lies in its artful dramatic pacing and a singular gathering of musical tension at the precisely apt moments. This is a grand opera that defies its three-plus-hour length and keeps one on edge until the very last moment. Compared to Samson, Henri VIII is both musically compelling and dramatic. Whereas we might mourn for Samson, there is little sympathy garnered for either Henri or his future bride, Anne Boleyn.


French director Jean-Romain Vesperini is an internationally acclaimed opera and stage director who has worked in Paris, London, and throughout Europe and Asia. He has used an all-French production crew and produced, in a limited stage space, with a minimum of artifice, the impression of deep and dark regal interiors. Chain curtains constructed by Torredemer in Céret, France provided illumination, articulation, and an ineffable accompaniment to the music and action. So much was done with so little, one could only hope to see more of M. Versperini’s future work.


As Henri, bass-baritone Alfred Walker is subjected to protean emotional states but must maintain a coherence of character and vocal delivery. Henri is ruthless in his treatment of Buckingham, passionate and naïve with Anne, dismissive and cruel with Catherine. The plot bait that Saint-Saëns dangles until the bitter end is a letter attesting to Anne’s love and commitment to Gómez prior to Henri’s romantic advances. Henri is caught between his willful upending of the Church’s sanctions on marriage and a guileless passion for Anne whose disingenuous regard merely reveals her self-serving passion for advancement.

In scene after scene, further romantic and political complexities unravel. Throughout, Henri’s ruthlessness becomes palpable, and Anne and Catherine’s deceptions and denials fuel Saint-Saëns’ score with painful chromaticism and mounting tension. Ballet episodes, beautiful choral sections (including a Latin setting of De Profundis) adorn and augment the knotty plot twists.


As the opera continues in Act II, pairs of duets depict the two women and Henri in varying states of fury, desperation, and determination. Catherine, sung by Amanda Woodbury, a soprano of great flexibility and eloquence, clearly becomes the object of sympathy in Saint-Saëns’ plaintive writing. Anne, mezzo-soprano Lindsay Ammann, is the perfect foil for the beleaguered Catherine. Ms. Ammann’s voice is darkly hued and resonant, with a steely, slightly frightening edge. Her containment of Catherine is fierce; her refusal to be Henri’s mistress and insistence on being fully confirmed as his bride is powerfully realized. When Ms. Ammann’s voice plunges downwards, we get the full impact of her character’s dark nature. Her duet with Henri when Anne is promised the throne was a highpoint of the evening. Catherine, soon, will warn Anne to beware of Henri’s duplicity and whims of favor. And woe to Anne if she does not bear Henri a son and heir as was Catherine’s fate.


The papal legate from Rome portrayed by Christian Zaremba was singular as bearer of bad news in his lustered, if vibrato-laden, bass. Henri refuses to accept his arrival, only drawing the tension over time.


The inevitable happens: Henri will have his way, Anne will triumph over Catherine, Don Gómez is left in a lurch, and the English church breaks from Rome. Henri was excommunicated on December 17, 1538. Tumultuous politico-religious upheavals are inspired by human desire and deceit.


Don Gómez de Feria, sung by Canadian tenor Josh Lovell, has great presence and a crystalline voice that was perfect throughout his complex part.


Alfred Walker’s Henri was unforgettable. The malice in his eyes and fierceness of expression were counterpoised by the smooth and attractive richness of his voice: neither opaque nor light.


Ballets and processionals brimming with period musical borrowings provided the intercalations to entertain rather than labor our attention.


Maestro Botstein led his group with an earnestness and weight unlike what we expect from French opera. James Bagwell, an infinitely gifted resource, brought out the best in the work’s choral sections.


Eleven years ago, Bard presented a concert version of this opera. My dear late colleague Michael Miller, writing for New York Arts gave this enthusiastic review.






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