Saint-Saëns Henry VIII

Author: 
Lionel Salter

Saint-Saëns Henry VIII

  • Henry VIII

When, in his ''Letter from France'' in the December issue, Andre Tubeuf mentioned the production in Compiegne of Saint-Saens's Henry VIII, I pricked up my ears and wondered whether a recording would be forthcoming—for this work, though very rarely heard, is not only written with outstanding skill (there are several big ensembles with anything up to 14 vocal parts) and some thematic distinction, but has a strong dramatic libretto with firm characterization. Unlike many operas, it doesn't play ducks and drakes with historical events (though it telescopes them a bit), even if it superimposes on them a story of Anne Boleyn having had an affair abroad with the Spanish ambassador at Henry's court; and having been designed for the Paris Opera, it includes a ballet and a big spectacular scene of Catherine of Aragon's trial and Henry's proclamation of himself, after his excommunication, as head of the Anglican Church.
Well, here is a recording from a radio relay of the Compiegne production. I'd give it ten out of ten for the intention, about four for the musical execution. I don't know at what point in the run this performance was given, but the number of false entries (especially by Philippe Rouillon as Henry), wrong notes in the orchestra, and occasions when the inflexible conductor fails to secure synchronization of stage and orchestra, seem to point to under-rehearsal. The audience in the theatre would probably not have been as aware as listeners to the recording of coughs and stage noises, and its enthusiasm for the singers is less likely to be shared. The most consistently satisfactory member of the cast is the coloratura mezzo Lucile Vignon as the ambitious Anne; Michele Command as the wronged queen Catherine is strong in her trial scene and in a quarrel with Anna, but much of her singing is squally, and she is at her best only in Act 4, when the dying Catherine realizes she will never again see her native Spain. A likeable tenor as the Spanish ambassa-dor, Alain Gabriel, unfortunately tires audibly before the end; the magisterial Philippe Rouillon, whose dark-timbred voice accords well with the Holbein image of a burly Henry, spoils things by singing flat for too much of the time; and the appallingly wobbly Papal delegate should never have been included in the cast. The chorus contribution is excellent.
Henry VIII was very well received at its premiere in 1883 and was widely taken up in several countries to the end of the century, and its revival now is much to be welcomed. With fine moments such as the duet between Henry and Anne and that between Anne and Gomez, Catherine's trial scene and her dying lament, and a quartet right at the end, this is still, despite the weaknesses in the performance outlined above, an opera to savour.'

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