Tag Archive: French grand opera

Saint-Saëns’ Other Grand Opera, Henry VIII at Bard

Saint-Saëns' Henry VIII, Jennifer Holloway as Anne Boleyn, Ellie Dehn as Catherine of Aragon, American Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leon Botstein. Photo Cory Weaver.

One of the valuable things the Bard Music Festival teaches its audiences is just how arbitrary the classical canon is. While that can’t be said of Wagner or Elgar, we learned that Prokofiev and Sibelius are most visible in concert programs and recordings through works which are not necessarily their most personal or interesting, or perhaps even their best. As managers, virtuosi, and critics grind the classical sausage from a noble saucisson de Lyon into a hot dog, the nature of the classical loses its individuality and becomes uniform and bland. The fame of Camille Saint-Saëns, on the other hand, is linked to virtually no work at all — perhaps the Carnival of the Animals or the “Organ” Symphony, which is not really performed all that often today. This immaculate work acquired a bad reputation among critics, largely because it is extraordinarily loud in places — just the right places to produce wild applause from an audience — far too effectively for the tastes of the snobbish American critics of the late 1950s and 1960s, when it had two especially potent advocates, Charles Munch and Paul Paray. Curiously, Saint-Saëns has a bad reputation as an opera composer, although another one of his few works in the standard repertory, his Samson et Dalila, is an opera.

Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots: French Grand Opera Comes to Bard.

Marie Lenormand as Urbain in Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots

The summer festivals have been proceeding creditably, but now the Important Events are beginning to turn up, mostly in New York State, it seems—not that a cycle of Beethoven violin sonatas by Christian Tetzlaff isn’t important! First came the Oresteia at Bard, then Rossini’s rarely performed Semiramide, and now, once again at Bard, Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots. Probably the most popular opera of all during the nineteenth century (It exceeded 1,000 performances at the Paris Opera), it fell rapidly from favor with, it seems, the First World War.

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