Among 13 operas, Camille Saint-Saens wrote one masterpiece and a few quite worthy works. Henry VIII isn't the former. It was first performed at the Paris Opera in 1883, six years after Samson et Dalila (which the Opera had declined), but in nearly every way the earlier opera seems the more modern" and mature. Henry, in fact, is almost as old-fashioned as Donizetti's half-century-older Anna Bolena, with its grand succession of arias, duets, and ensembles--and the two operas' plots are strongly similar, too, if you substitute a changing-of-the-crown Catherine of Aragon. and Anne Boleyn for Donizetti's Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour. And Henry was no more the star role for the Frenchman than he was for the Italian; in both operas, it's the .dueling wives who rule.
Henry's score is well worth a hearing, however, and Leon Botstein gave it one, in concert, as the season closer of this year's Bard SumrnerScape. He's not the most nuanced maestro, but his performances never lack vigor or honest commitment. He built Saint-Saens' climaxes to splendid catharses--the big Act I ensemble, with the condemned Duke of Buckingham led to the block as the conflicted Anne feels eerie presages of her own fate, was especially effective. With one exception, I'd known not a note of the score before Bard; butVeronique Gens's CD rendition of Catherine's last-act scene (under Christophe Rousset's pliant baton) gave me a strong sense of what was largely missing from Botstein's estimable performance--a truly idiomatic feel for the language, both verbal and musical.
Easily the best of the principals in this regard was tenor John Tessier, who brought to the rather flimsy figure of Anne's onetime love, Don Gomez de Feria, a happy balance of voice--lean and pleasantly pointed--and (sharing the latter virtue) elocution. The two leading ladies were also strong, if less comfortably in the groove: soprano Ellie Dehn as Catherine, sympathetic and vocally sure; and mezzo Jennifer Holloway, an up-and-comer who gave of her lyrically full-toned best as Anne. As Henry, bass-baritone Jason Howard let down neither Wales (his birthplace) nor Canada (his current home), but after all his stage experience as South Pacific's Emile de Becque, one might have expected of him a more au courant nod to France. He wasn't helped by the regal costume design of Anne Patterson--black suits and open-collared Shirts for the men, a little more concert-style variety for the ladies--nor was the production enhanced by the oval and rectangular-framed projections that passed for scenery Still, I doubt that anyone at Bard that late afternoon and early evening had, during a very vocal final ovation, any serious regrets about how he'd been spending his time.
Ever since I first heard it (on an old Mercury Living Presence LP from my hometown Detroit Symphony, under its cliff d'orchestre, Paul Paray), the "Fete polonaise" that opens Act II of Chabrier's Le roi malgre lui has had the kinetically intoxicant effect of making me warn to get up and express myself like a latter-day, male Isadora. Later, when I discovered the fall version with chorus (on Charles Dutoit's Erato set of the complete opera), the intoxication grew even stronger. When I finally heard the whole score a few years back, at a memorable concert performance under Botstein, the afternoon's biggest drawback was that I couldn't leap gleefully up and down the aisles. …