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

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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.

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.

Henry VIII
by Camille Saint-Saëns

Sunday, August 19, 2012, 4.30 pm
Fisher Center, Sosnoff Theater, Bard College

American Symphony Orchestra
conducted by Leon Botstein, music director

Bard Festival Chorale
James Bagwell, choral director

Anne Patterson, design and direction
Adam Larsen, projection design
Kina Park, associate set designer

Jason Howard, Baritone – Henry VIII
Ellie Dehn, Soprano – Catherine of Aragon
Jennifer Holloway, Mezzo-Soprano – Anne Boleyn
John Tessier, Tenor – Don Gomez de Feria
Nathan Stark, Bass – Duke of Norfolk
Jon-Michael Ball, Tenor – Earl of Surrey
Jeffrey Tucker, Bass – Cardinal Campeggio
Branch Fields, Bass – Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury

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. Revivals of his other ten operas are scarce, and we have little to go by in testing the validity of the common opinion that Saint-Saëns’s operas are weak, because he lacked a sense of the dramatic. Samson et Dalila slipped through the cracks because he originally conceived it as an oratorio, without concern for what was happening on stage. This is odd, since, apart from the operas, he was invited to write a good deal of incidental music. Hence, choosing one of these operas as the crown of the festival was one way of taking the bull by the horns. (I can’t resist this expression, since Saint-Saëns wrote at least two of his theatrical works for performance in a bullring!)

Yet another irony is that Saint-Saëns had a great deal of difficulty in getting Samson produced. It received its first performance only because Franz Liszt took a liking to the work — and the composer — and succeeded in putting it on the schedule in Weimar in 1877. It was not performed in France until 1890, at Rouen, finally making its way to the Paris Opera in 1892, and since then, it has remained popular to this day. Much of the initial resistance had to do with its biblical subject — a taboo on stage, but New York critics, following its Metropolitan Opera premiere in 1895, found the familiar flaws in it. Henry Krehbiel wrote in the New York Tribune, “It did not require a very shrewd guesser three years ago when Saint-Saens’s Samson et Dalila was given by the Oratorio Society to determine that the work had an exclusively musical value, and that a stage performance would add nothing to the public appreciation of it….There was a discouragingly small audience in attendance, and absolutely no enthusiasm.” In the New York Times W. J. Henderson wrote, “The performance last night suggested one pertinent question, and that was: Why not keep the work on the concert stage? There is so little action in it that it seems hardly necessary to go to the trouble of dressing and setting scenery. The action is almost wholly confined to the ballet, and even that is not of a superior order. As a costumed concert, Samson et Dalila might have considerable attractiveness.”

So much for Samson et Dalila. Well, no… It has held its appeal for Met audiences and others over the years. For the Bard Festival, Leon Botstein and his team settled on Henry VIII, the least obscure of the other operas, which received a production in France and a DVD some years ago. Unlike Samson, Saint-Saëns had no difficulty in getting it produced at the Paris Opera, since it was commissioned by the the Director, Vaucorbeil, who gave him a libretto which had originally been written for Gounod. Saint-Saëns would have preferred a French subject, but he had no difficulty in immersing himself in the project. In fact he had engagements in England, which helped him with his research and made it easier for him to find thematic material in English manuscripts of the period in the Royal Library at Buckingham Palace. Just as Samson is scented with exotic motifs and harmonies, Henry VIII is replete with old English tunes and imitations of early Renaissance harmony and style. The libretto was based on Calderón de la Barca’s play, La cisma in Inglaterra, worked together with the Shakespearean Henry VIII. It concentrates on the earlier phases of Henry’s troubles with wives and with Rome, his infatuation with Anne Boleyn and subsequent annulment of his marriage with Catherine of Aragon, followed by the earlier part of his marriage with Anne. The librettists, Léonce Détroyat and Armand Silvestre, as well as the self-proclaimed atheist, Saint-Saëns, were not especially keen on the Counter-Reformational perspective of Calderón’s play, which is thought to date from the late 1620s, but there was of course much psychological insight and dramatic chiaroscuro to be mined from it. The central concern is not only Henry’s excommunication and fall from a state of grace but his moral failings and psychological convolutions as well.

Hence, Henry VIII is in essence a psychological opera. The climaxes at the ends of each act are not lightning bolts of action or blazing decisions, but ominous foreshadowings of worse events to come. It is a study of a deformed soul in a position of absolute power and its effect on the king’s rule and on those near him. They had originally considered including the beheading of Anne Boleyn and decided against it — wisely, since it has much greater power as an adumbration than as an event. The drama in the opera occurs in the characters’ states of mind more than in what they actually do to one another. The first act is overshadowed by a great irony. As Henry sets himself to wooing Anne, abjuring his marital vows in a way which seemed shocking in the performance, as casual as we are about such things today, the condemnation and execution of the Queen’s favorite, the Duke of Buckingham, continues in the background. After one hearing of this fascinating opera, I can hardly trace the many ramifications of Henry’s undirected passions, in which desire, mistaken for love, turns easily into paranoiac suspicion and resentment. Catherine, Anne, Don Gomez, and the King make for a brilliant psychological quartet of disastrously interconnected personalities, not unlike Siegfried, Gutrune, Gunther, Hagen, and Brünnhilde, and not surpassed until Wozzeck and Lulu. In addition to all this Henry VIII has another theatrical layer altogether, a simpler, more obvious one as a series of historical tableaux.

If this sounds like a rather adult opera, it is. The Festival prepared us well for it, because, all along the way, the talks and the concerts kept stressing that Saint-Saëns wrote music for adults — for people who were mature musically as well as in life. Endowed with a rare physical and intellectual gifts, which gave him an uncanny mastery of both performance and composition, not to mention a wide-ranging mastery of disciplines valued highly in his time, Saint-Saëns was the ideal product of the trivium and quadrivium in an age when these had become vestigial relicts in education. Neither music nor poetry — of which he was a skilled practitioner — were for him vehicles of prophetic afflatus, wast hey were for his Romantic contemporaries, but part of civilized human discourse. Leon Botstein wickedly observed that Wagner wrote “music for dummies,” and, as an admirer of Wagner’s work, I take his point. Saint-Saëns began as a Wagnerian, but he abjured it later for a variety of reasons. Above all, I think, it was temperamentally alien to him to overwhelm his audiences with musical affects. He expected his audiences — optimistically of course — to be somewhat informed and intelligent in their reception, and he laid his music before them as a finely-crafted work of art, which had to be well-wrought and beautiful throughout. In this way, Henry VIII, both in story and in music, constantly returns to delightfully turned expressions of good manners and human sympathy, as well as to evocations of pleasant, soul-restoring localities, which can only be described by pleasing music — even if they function primarily as the background for the monarch’s evil deeds and everything else that goes wrong as a result of his untempered passions. Henry is not so much a villain as an agent of disaster through his lack of comprehension of his own motivations and actions and his lack of control over them.

Key scenes are Henry’s attempt to seduce Anne Boleyn at the end of Act I and his further attempt in Act II. As powerful as he is, he can’t get what he wants from her through power or authority. He must offer her marriage and the Queen’s position — which, in spite of the libretto’s secularization, is clearly not his to give. Henry’s desires lead him into positions of weakness which make him all the more dangerous, as the situation becomes increasingly muddy. (I think there is in this some of the French horror at the compromise and confusion of English ways.) Henry is willing to barter with the rights of others and to demean himself, then compensating with authoritarian brutality. Anne Boleyn is not excused of her traditional character defects, but she gains our sympathy, because Henry essentially corrupts her by offering her Catherine’s throne in an especially sinister seduction scene. He is surely one of the most disturbing characters in opera. You will find psychological parallels in the opera of the Grand Siècle. Thomas Corneille and Quinault were brilliant in this, and Saint-Saëns knew his Lully, Charpentier, and Rameau very well.

How did this play out on stage at Bard? The stage comes naturally to mind, although it was a concert performance, and this gives you an idea of the success of the “production,” which was enhanced with projections of period portraits of the protagonists, as well as other suggestive images. Although one or two specific images didn’t literally fit into a particular moment in the story, this was a splendid piece of work, one which did far more than most stage productions in evoking the period and historical situation, as well as putting the interactions of the characters in a suggestive ambiance.

All the essentials in this performance seemed right. Botstein has a fine sense of how Saint-Saëns should be played: it is essential not to add anything to it in expression or tone. The lines are clean and transparent, and Saint-Saëns expresses everything he wants in the score. Botstein concentrated on the score, its continuity, and the expression appropriate to each situation “on stage.” In this way we could follow the harrowing story, hear all the music Saint-Saëns had written, savor its harmonies and textures, and be moved by the drama. Saint-Saëns had the good manners not to intrude on the autonomy of our individual consciousness in enjoying his art.

The cast was outstanding in every way. We first hear the American bass-baritone, Nathan Stark, as Norfolk, converse with the Canadian tenor, John Tessier, as Don Gomez de Feria. Mr. Stark’s unusual, variegated voice had already impressed me in earlier concerts. He is an original, gifted with a large, piebald voice of power and resonance. I thought he might have over-characterized some of the songs he sang a day or so before, but he was entirely in his element on the operatic stage, portraying the sympathetic courtier. Tessier sang his part of an ardent lover, beset with a heavy burden of frustrations, ambiguities, and pains, with exceptional beauty of tone, as a classic lyric tenor with a substantial instrument, and fine insight into Gomez’ character as a constant, honorable nobleman, cast into ambiguity and ultimate rejection. Jason Howard created a king who was in fact deranged and criminal, an immense source of evil through his use of his authority and his willed ability to manipulate others, when they defy his will and he cannot simply coerce or punish them. His Henry has no understanding of or ability to control his passions. He has his pathetic moments, as well as his frightening and appalling ones. Howard proved himself as a great singing actor in the best British tradition, like Sir Geraint Evans and Sir John Tomlinson, using a substantial range of vocal color, not all of it pretty, to portray a dangerous sociopath. He was especially effective in playing off the softer, higher regions of his voice against his dark, sometimes gritty (when he wanted it) bottom. This was a truly memorable performance. You could imagine him going on to to sing a great Wozzeck the next evening.

Jennifer Holloway balanced the calculating and vulnerable sides of Anne Boleyn in a most involving portrayal, always sung most beautifully, phrased with expression and sensitivity to Saint-Saëns’ lyricism, and vividly characterized. Although Boleyn is in many ways the victim of Hanry’s manipulation and abuse of power, Holloway’s is strong, and her confrontation with Henry over her position in Act II was convincing and powerful.

Ellie Dehn portrayed Catherine of Aragon with subtle psychology, refinement in phrasing, and vocal color and beauty that can only recall a Milanov. The subtleties of her phrasing and characterization, however, belong only to our own age. Saint-Saëns and his librettists made Catherine the most sympathetic character, but one who was fully human. Catherine is a great operatic character, and Dehn made the most of it. She is a singer of astonishing intelligence. I have been impressed with her vocal and dramatic work before, as Freia in Achim Freyer’s Ring at Los Angeles and as Rosaura in the 2010 Santa Fe production of Lewis Spratlan’s great opera after another Calderón play, Life is a Dream (via video). It was thrilling to hear and see her immense capabilities brought to bear on a nineteenth century role as long and complex as Rosaura in Spratlan’s twentieth-century masterpiece. While remaining entirely within the parameters of her character she produced vocal color of the kind of jaw-dropping beauty which could stand her well at the Met, as well as a musical elegance and psychological expression of the most intelligent kind.

This performance did full justice to the Grand Guignol and the sophistication in Saint-Saën’s great opera. The trick is, that audiences really have to follow every line as it proceeds and to pay attention to every detail. (This Bard Festival in fact trained us to listen differently — more dispassionately and with intellectual detachment — and this can only be for the better.) This is not because Henry VIII is a strange opera or a very complex one, but Saint-Saëns, as usual, asks for full concentration and full objectivity. For such a tuneful, pleasing composer, he was a surprisingly demanding one.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

Readers Comments (1)

  1. Avatar photoRalph P. Locke August 29, 2012 @ 06:40

    What wonderful news: a strong concert performance of Saint-Saëns’s opera Henry VIII, which many opera lovers have read about but never had a chance to experience! Your remarks on the acuity of Saint-Saëns’s dramatic characterizations and on his remarkable insistence on keeping the music beautiful and attractive at all moments, even when the characters are engaging in ugly behavior, fit exactly my experience, through the years, of his Samson et Dalila. The balance of emotional insight and, as you say, “objectivity” in both works is quite different from what we are accustomed to in other operas.

    Bravo to the Bard Festival–sounds like the performance was splendid!–and thanks for this perceptive analysis….

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