Saint-Saëns: Revue Henry VIII – a lyrical rarity of epic proportions | Classical music
VSamille Saint-Saëns composed 13 operas, but only one of them, Samson et Dalila, is now part of the regular repertoire. However, during the composer’s lifetime at least, Henry VIII, first seen in Paris in 1883, rivaled Samson in popularity; there have been performances across Europe, and although it has only been performed a handful of times since Saint-Saëns’ death in 1921, it remains mostly performed from his other operas.
The libretto is based on Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s play La Cisma de Inglaterra (The Schism in England), although Saint-Saëns and his librettists also incorporated incidents and characters from Shakespeare’s Henry VIII. The action focuses on the English king’s determination to divorce Catherine of Aragon so that he can marry Anne Boleyn, and the split with the Roman church that brought about, although Calderón has introduced another dramatic element with the Spanish Ambassador Don Gómez de Feria’s love for Anne, and Catherine’s love. efforts to protect her rival from Henry’s jealousy. In many ways, Catherine, who dies at the end of the opera, is more obviously the central character than the king, and she is certainly the more sympathetic figure.
Prior to the Paris premiere and for subsequent performances, Saint-Saëns’ original score was quite drastically cut and revised. But this recording is based on a concert given by Odyssey Opera in Boston, Massachusetts in 2019, using Hugh MacDonald’s restoration of the complete 1883 score, some of which had never been heard before. In this form, Henry VIII is a work of truly epic proportions, with over 220 minutes of music; one could qualify it as Wagnerian ambition, except that, even if it uses musical leitmotifs to define the protagonists, the conservative approach of Saint-Saëns’ opera is very far from that of Wagner, and owes much more to the world of Meyerbeer and the traditions of Parisian grand opera in the mid-19th century.
One can imagine that some of the music sounds more lively and engaging with bigger and brighter voices than those of the cast assembled by Odyssey Opera. But with baritone Michael Chioldi as King, soprano Ellie Dehn as Catherine and mezzo Hilary Ginther as Anne, all the main roles are very well performed, while the breadth and grandeur of the work’s set pieces – the finale of the first act, the ballet of the second and the synodal scene of the third – are certainly conveyed under the direction of Gil Rose. Lovers of lyrical rarities should not hesitate.