Henry VIII – Opera in four Acts to a libretto by Léonce Détroyat and Armand Silvestre after Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s El cisma en Inglaterra and Shakespeare’s Henry VIII [sung in French with French and Dutch surtitles]
Henry VIII – Lionel Lhote
Don Gomez de Féria – Ed Lyon
Le Cardinal Campeggio – Vincent Le Texier
Le Comte de Surrey – Enguerrand de Hys
Le Duc de Norfolk – Werner van Mechelen
Cranmer – Jérôme Varnier
Catherine d’Aragon – Marie-Adeline Henry
Anne de Boleyn – Nora Gubisch
Lady Clarence – Claire Antoine
Garter / Un officier – Alexander Marev
Un huissier de la cour – Leander Carlier
Quatre dames d’honneur – Alessia Thias Berardi, Annelies Kerstens, Lieve Jacobs & Manon Poskin
Quatre seigneurs – Alain-Pierre Wingelinckx, Luis Aguilar, Byoungjin Lee & René Laryea
La Monnaie Chorus
Symphony Orchestra of La Monnaie
Olivier Py – Director
Pierre-André Weitz – Set & Costumes
Bertrand Killy – Lighting
Ivo Bauchiero – Choreography
Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers
Reviewed: 25 May, 2023
Venue: La Monnaie, Brussels, Belgium
As La Monnaie knows, the Tudors incite interest in any dramatic retelling about them, having just mounted a conflation of three Donizetti operas concerning that dynasty. It is curious, then, that Saint-Saëns’s Henry VIII (1883) is so rarely encountered, either – or especially – in the UK, or anywhere else. It is true that French grand opéra based on epic narratives (historical or otherwise) is generally regarded with some trepidation by modern opera companies, for the demands they make on resources and uncertainty as to whether audiences are sufficiently interested in them, except for the handful of favourites such as Faust or Werther, making them a risky venture. But Olivier Py’s new production for La Monnaie shows that Saint-Saëns’s work is worth reviving at least as much as those, if interpreted imaginatively on stage as here.
The well-known history of Henry’s desire for a divorce from Catherine of Aragon in order to wed Anne Boleyn and beget a male heir, and the establishment of the Church of England, is presented here in the late-nineteenth-century, rather than the sixteenth. It is explicitly framed for the audience as theatrical performance from the outset (with Lionel Lhote posing in classic Tudor costume as the king before a photographer) calling to mind, for example, Stefan Herheim’s successful packaging of Verdi’s Les vêpres siciliennes (another work in the genre of grand opéra) as a play within a play, for Covent Garden. Presumably the nineteenth-century is chosen to correspond to the era of the opera’s composition, but it is perhaps not fanciful either to regard this retelling within that period as like an ironic type of historical pageant, of which the Victorians and Edwardians were so fond, as they looked back from their position as the most powerful country in the globe to the past which had led up to that. (The prevailing atmosphere of tension and suspicion in Py’s production, however, makes it clear that this is no Whiggish, Protestant celebration of such a history, despite the rough handling of Campeggio, the papal legate, and the robust refutation of Roman Catholic hegemony.)
Together with an engaging matrix of other dramaturgical and choreographic devices, this interpretation brings to life what otherwise may seem to modern audiences the sterile conventions of such grand opéra. The generally black, funereal appearance of the whole setting creates its own solemn mood, against which the alluring red of Anne’s attire stands out – and, ironically, also the same red of the assembled, mitred clergy for the Synod which oversees the divorce. (Such a council of clerics also calls to mind the recreation of the Council of Trent in Pfitzner’s Palestrina, a grand opera of a different German vein, which also cries out for more regular performances than it receives.)
It’s curious (whether or not coincidental) that the artistic and architectural references drawn upon to enrich the production’s ideas come from Venice and the Veneto; but, in tandem with the highly astute choreography for the troupe of dancers frequently counterpointing the drama, they are telling. The Brechtian underlining of the drama’s innate theatricality is invoked by using Palladio’s Teatro Olimpico at Vicenza (its parts dynamically deployed in various configurations rather than merely copied) as the chief component of the set. Paintings by Tintoretto are quoted – principally the central section of the magnificent Crucifixion at the Scuola di San Rocca, and part of the Last Judgment of the Madonna dell’Orto. But there are also tableaux vivants of the former painting (centring on the dancer who takes the silent role of the Duke of Buckingham, whose conviction for treason and beheading at the opening of the work itself presages the general conspiratorial air within Henry’s court, as well as Anne’s own fate) and, earlier, of Anne enthroned with a baby and courtiers in attendance, like however many versions of the Madonna and Child image by Giovanni Bellini (probably the San Zaccharia altarpiece is in mind) – Anne’s child, of course, precisely not the boy for which Henry had hoped.
In other words, this production presents a rich theatrical spectacle, re-interpreting the sumptuous form of grand opéra of Saint-Saens’s time, which might seem needlessly extravagant or confusing were it not that the plethora of Py’s ideas about religion, power, judgment, and violence imagined here exactly illumine and cohere around the themes of the narrative itself. Furthermore, the shirtless, and even near-naked dancers for the choreographic sequences (notably for Buckingham’s torture and later a dance of infernal creatures) evoke a Freudian merging of eroticism and death. The dance spectacle is extended into the interval as Saint-Saëns’s specifically-composed ballet music is performed over loud speakers in the square before the opera house, and the dancers reprise the narrative.
Not the least part of all that spectacle is Saint-Saëns’s score itself – poised and subtle, guarded as the composer was against the powerful influence of Wagner (the work was premiered just a few months after the latter’s death) even if each Act is continuous, and a few brooding, densely-harmonised passages could be said to be Wagnerian. But the lucid, arioso-like setting of the libretto marks it out as typical of French operatic repertoire (going back to Lully, its originator) though clearly delineated arias and ensembles, and occasional choruses, reveal the influence of Verdi and the Italian tradition. But the chorus of the people, hailing both Henry as leader of the state and Church, and consequent political and spiritual freedom from the Papacy, has a jauntiness and vigour that is redolent of the Marseillaise perhaps. Alain Altinoglu’s account of the opera lends colour and vitality to the score, rather than letting it simply fall back onto a routine, Gallic refinement lacking drama. Although there is finely etched clarity – the strings and woodwind of the Symphony Orchestra of La Monnaie generally remain luminous – he maintains tension and purpose.
The cast is led by Lhote’s dramatically involving and convincing account of the volatile, domineering king – expressing tenderness and warmth on the one hand (though cleverly qualified by Py at the end, as he supposedly swears fidelity to Anne but is already seen with another woman, evidently Jane Seymour) and a slickly controlled sense of insecurity and conflict as he ponders how to loose himself from the chains of political and religious duty and his own lust. Marie-Adeline Henry is a steely Catherine of Aragon, projecting herself with the force of an Italianate prima donna (in the neutral sense of dramatic priority among female characters) with near coloratura vividness in her music that almost cajoles us to sympathy with her situation, rather than lyrically persuading us. Nora Gubisch’s Anne is fascinatingly inscrutable in her vocal quality, somehow evoking the unseen charm she has worked upon Henry and, evidently, Gomez the Spanish ambassador before him. (By drawing upon a play by Calderón de la Barca, the opera sets up a love-triangle between them – unsurprisingly Calderón introduces this additional Spanish element, even if an unhistorical one – which enlivens the work as a personal, emotional drama, rather than being solely concerned with politics, which Shakespeare’s late play (apparently also a source) concentrates upon more by including the downfall of Cardinal Wolsey, a character the opera omits.)
Ed Lyon sings incisively as Gomez, with the crisp coolness of the earlier vocal repertoire he is perhaps more associated with, bringing out discreetly the only uncomplicated romantic passion in this opera, expressed in the beginning to Werner van Mechelen’s sturdily-voiced Norfolk. Enguerrand de Hys is a more fervent, younger Surrey, while Vincent Le Texier is calmly authoritative as the papal legate, Cardinal Campeggio, forbearing and steady as he navigates a tricky situation. La Monnaie Chorus make some stirring contributions, achieving a monumental grandeur in the massed scenes, but also more effective nuance elsewhere.
Any longueurs in this three-hour opera are dispelled by this busy and stimulating production, which ably shows how grand opéra can still thrill and intrigue. In post-imperial, post-Brexit Britain, it is also not hard to see how a director could profitably and thought-provokingly interrogate Henry’s obsession with power and sovereignty as he seeks to take back control.