Presented in concert by Odyssey Opera
Composed by Camille Saint-Saëns
Libretto by Léonce Détroyat and Armand Silvestre
Gil Rose, conductor
Version prepared with assistance from Hugh Macdonald
Supertitles provided by Danielle Sinclair
Review by Diana Lu
(Boston, MA) The year is 1521. Henry VIII (Michael Chioldi) rules England with unhinged fury. The chorus announces that Henry is about to behead the Duke of Buckingham, once a beloved best friend. It is a grave foreshadowing of Anne Boleyn’s infamous fate. The chorus pleads, “please, can someone save us from this mad tyrant?”
Camille Saint-Saëns’ grand French opera faithfully recounts Tudor history. Henry VIII married Catherine of Aragon (Ellie Dehn) in 1509. She is a faithful wife and beloved queen, but Henry grows increasingly paranoid about the legitimacy of their union under God. What if Catherine can never bear a son because Henry is being punished for marrying his brother’s widow?
In his unstable state, Henry pursues the charismatic and shrewd Anne Boelyn (Hilary Ginther). England breaks from the Catholic Church, Henry nullifies his marriage to Catherine and makes Anne the new Queen. It is a plot that takes 15 years.
In Saint-Saëns’ version, the Spanish Ambassador Don Gomez’s (Yeghishe Manucharyan) relationship to Anne seeds Henry’s new paranoia. His rage only intensifies after he reaches his goal. The opera ends with an enraged Henry vowing that “the ax will fall” on Anne. She realizes that, though she is the queen, she’s still a brutal king’s pitiful subject. And as queen, is more completely subordinate to a more absolute dictator than ever before.
Saint-Saëns’ opera is the only version of Henry VIII’s history I have seen created outside of the anglosphere. The French composer, with French librettists Léonce Détroyat and Armand Silvestre, offered up a subtly different (less hagiographic) perspective on the familiar story that was at once richer and more sinister.
I always liked Saint-Saëns. Samson and Delilah, his most famous opera, borrows motifs from Middle Eastern music without Orientalizing it. He imbued his ancient characters with psychological complexity and dignity that is rare even today.
Henry VIII followed a similar course. Each historical figure had a distinct persona and responded to each other and situations with satisfying emotional authenticity. The realness of the characters breathed life into a well-tread history. I especially appreciated the significant roles for both Catherine and Anne. The women portrayed vivid humanity that versions of the story focused on Henry often leave out. I want to say this opera passed the Bechdel Test.
The cast was exceptional. Each performer invoked their character so well physically, expressively, and vocally. It felt like I was watching the real Anne, Catherine, Henry, etc grapple with their fates.
Odyssey Opera’s orchestra supported the singers with a magnificent 4.5-hour marathon of a concert, the first in history to incorporate almost an hour of Saint-Saëns’ painstakingly researched original score.
Conductor Gil Rose guided the performers with palpable gusto. The whole team put their hearts and souls into this concert. I truly admire their devotion to history, music, and the human condition.
The acoustics of Jordan Hall are wonderful. Yet at a capacity of only 1,051, the theater hardly feels big enough to do this grand opera justice. Odyssey Opera’s Henry VIII was a once in a lifetime experience. I hope someday, more people will enjoy such a magnificent production. I hope it will be on a stage commensurate with the opera’s grandeur.