Saturday 24 June 2023

Saint-Saëns - Henry VIII (Brussels, 2023)

Camille Saint-Saëns - Henry VIII

La Monnaie-De Munt, 2023

Alain Altinoglu, Olivier Py, Lionel Lhote, Marie-Adeline Henry, Nora Gubisch, Ed Lyon, Vincent Le Texier, Enguerrand de Hys, Werner van Mechelen, Jérôme Varnier, Claire Antoine, Alexander Marev, Carlos Martinez, Alexander Marev, Alessia Thais Beradi, Annelies Kerstens, Lieve Jacobs, Manon Poskin, Alain-Pierre Wingelinckx, Luis Aguilar, Byoungjin Lee, René Laryea

OperaVision - May 2023

There is no denying the lyrical beauty of the music of Camille Saint-Saëns and consequently it's always a joy to discover some of his lesser known operas, but I have to admit that I struggle to find relevance in his subjects or indeed find much in the way of true feeling or connection with the human condition in his treatments. To be fair, while Samson and Dalila remains an impressive and powerful work still worthy of continued revival, opportunities to actually see (rather than just hear recordings) of his other operas are still few and far between. Director Olivier Py, often a reliable and interesting director at La Monnaie in Brussels, certainly gives Henry VIII his best shot, but there is still a feeling that there is something vital lacking that would make a case for the work and other Saint-Saëns operas meriting a return to the main repertoire.

The challenges of adapting any period of the reign and activities of Henry VIII are you would imagine considerable. Even just choosing which of the wives as the focus for an opera, but the fate of Anne Boleyn would certainly have to be considered as a starting point, such is the impact that this marriage would have on subsequent English history. Donizetti wasn't too concerned with historical fact when he set to work on his series of operas about the English monarchs, but still managed to make them hugely entertaining, not least in his own version of the Anne Boleyn story. Whichever way you approach it, it's going to be a long one and so full of operatic incident and drama as to be almost irresistible.

Saint-Saens' approach in Henry VIII, while it inevitably is still operatically stylised, places more focus on Catherine's condition as a spurned wife, the significance of the dissolution of that marriage and the schism it caused with the church as the beginning of a reign of terror. Rather than one thing leading to another, there is instead a sense of a strange but compelling juxtaposition of love and terror that intentionally sit rather uncomfortably together. This is exemplified by the finale of Act I, where the king declares his love for the handmaid he has brought over from France at the same time as the execution of Buckingham is taking place outside. Anne Boleyn is not unexpectedly horrified at the strange (to say the least) by appetites of the English king, fearing for the Spanish ambassador Gomez who has already declared his love for Anne.

That certainly raises the stakes, but as a grand opéra it still has certain conventions that must be adhered to which can make it something of an acquired taste by today's standards. At the very least it does feel like the drama could have been tightened up a little more. Act II in particular feels a little bit overdone with Henry pressing his declarations of love still further on Anne while Gomez looks on helplessly. On the other hand, the menace is still there and the intriguing juxtaposition of declarations of love bearing more than a hint of danger that Anne is unwittingly flirting with since we know what lies ahead (or indeed a head) makes this something worth exploring. And indeed, this develops into a just as charged confrontation between the Queen Catherine and the pretender for her position, any confrontation between the two women always a sure situation for sparks to fly.

Olivier Py as ever is an interesting choice of director for the staging of this kind of rare opera at La Monnaie. Saint-Saëns in grand opéra mode presents a rich palette of dramatic scenes, musical set pieces, rousing choruses and ballet music, which Py dutifully addresses in his own way with his regular set designer Pierre-André Weitz. The stage is very dark and menacing, largely black and white with bold colours set against it, Anne notably in blood red. There is a blend of historical Tudor costume and 19th century period dress, since Py feels the work has more to do with the divisions of church and state in the French Third Republic of Saint-Saëns time than it does about English 16th century history. He makes good use of the dancers in the ballet sequences (and outside of them also), as well as his tableau arrangements (as in his Dialogues des Carmélites) to try to touch on other spiritual elements, bringing stylisations to the swirling undercurrents of violence and death as they are represented in the music, which wouldn't bear too much realism.

As much as I love Saint-Saëns and the French Romantic composers of this era, his music is fairly nondescript for the most part, reminding me Ambroise Thomas. Unmemorable maybe, even if conductor Alain Altinoglu praises the character and colouration of his writing, and a little bit academic, not really allowing you to feel any real emotional connection. But as far as the demands of the opera are concerned, the composer (and conductor) fulfil the remit, building the tension up to a high-pitched finale at the end of each of the four acts, each of the principals having several strong expressive arias. There is certainly an impact in the key scenes, such as Henry proclaiming himself head of the church in England to huge choral acclaim. Py serves such scenes well, not neglecting the ballet scenes either but making good use of this music to underline and contribute to the overall tone of the work in this production, as when for example he extends the final quartet with a silent dancer and Jane Seymour to further add to the sense of menace.

Grand opéra of this kind is a challenge but also a treat when you have good singers to deliver it. Soprano Marie-Adeline Henry takes the honours here with a superb, impressively sung Catherine of Aragon. In many ways she is the heart of the tragedy and main vehicle that establishes the tone of the opera, so it's vital that it is in good hands. Mezzo-soprano Nora Gubisch is also good as her 'lesser-equal', and Ed Lyon is still in fine voice as Don Gomez. Henry VIII is such a larger-than-life figure that it can be a challenge to show nuance or character, but there is indeed some human qualities invoked by Saint-Saëns's music and Lionel Lhote's performance. Definitely a cast worthy of the work and they do it justice. Py also treats Saint-Saëns' Henry VIII respectfully or at least appropriately, with fewer of his usual mannerisms, the extravagance of the stunning set designs commensurate with the scale and scope of the work. The spectacle, colour, movement and superb stage management brings out the contrasts, dynamic and lyricism in an opera than might not be great, but has certainly much to admire in it.

Links: La Monnaie-De Munt, OperaVision