Henry VIII (Odyssey Opera, Gil Rose)
Kudos to Odyssey Opera. The Boston-based company, founded by conductor Gil Rose in 2013, is doing the world favor after favor with its pioneering series of operas unearthed, polished and performed often in unreleased original versions with fine American casts. Recently, they made a strong impression with the first complete recording of Gounod The Queen of Shebaand now they’ve done it again with Saint-Saëns’ Henry VIIIan opera renowned as the composer’s forgotten masterpiece and yet one with only one other recording no longer available in the catalogue.
This recording, taken from live performances in 2019 but without intrusive sound or applause, is billed as the world’s first recording of the complete original version from 1883. Although the opera was staged quite frequently in the 19th and early 20th century, it seems that even the first version was heavily abridged. After serious detective work and the help of Saint-Saëns researcher Hugh Macdonald, Rose and Odyssey Opera have managed to restore an hour of remarkable music, including entire scenes, that has never been heard before.
With a commission from the Paris Opera to his credit, Saint-Saëns takes on Henry VIII very seriously indeed, apparently visiting Buckingham Palace to explore the Royal Music Collection from which he looted a slew of tunes that pleased him. Sadly, this is all a century too late for Henry VIII, but they do give the score a certain English, albeit coddled, flavor. For the rest, the score is typical of its composer, French in flavor, full of delicate melodies, and with a semi-Wagnerian use of the leitmotif applied to characters and situations. At times, especially in the extended ballet of Act II and in the sets, it rises to greatness, though at other times the plot drags disastrously, especially in the act I. Henry VIII with the foot fleet in two acts Phryne ten years later, has just been recorded and released on Bru Zane, and the four-act grand opera comes across as an unwieldy monster.
One thing this recording has going for it is its three principles. Michael Chioldi has a lively, powerful baritone and makes a good Henry VIII, a much more manly figure than one finds, say, in Donizetti’s book. Anna Bolena. The libretto, based mostly on Calderón but partly on Shakespeare, involves him in a series of subtle maneuvers and Chioldi is uniquely adept at transforming from smiling husband to ruthless despot.
Ellie Dehn delivers a star turn as Catherine of Aragon (as it’s based on a Spanish source, Catherine is the heroine of the opera). His bright, creamy soprano elicits bags of sympathy, far surpassing – the elderly admittedly – Montserrat Caballé whom you can see singing the role in 2002 on YouTube. Whether in the showdowns with her husband and future Queen Number Two, or the big trial scene in Act III, she pours stream upon stream of silvery, lyrical sound.
As Anne Boleyn, Hilary Ginther is equally compelling, her warm mezzo effectively transitioning from restless lady-in-waiting to ambitious rival with ease. His Act II showdown with Catherine and the following set is a highlight. With his sonorous bass and equally fine diction, Kevin Deas composes a richly toned Cardinal Campeggio, the papal legate. His dark aria on the vanity of kings, “Fatal orgueil des rois”, is beautifully sung.
Elsewhere, Yeghishe Manucharyan’s harsh tenor makes him insufficiently likeable as lover Don Gomez de Feria, Anne’s former lover and later Catherine’s main supporter, while David Kravitz is slightly hollow as The Duke. of Norfolk (and somehow less well recorded than most Act I).
Gil Rose leads the Odyssey Opera Orchestra in an elegant performance that reaches heavy emotional heights and quite crackles in the exuberant ballet. It’s decently recorded too, although the balance with the chorus is uneven. Rose knows the genre like the back of her hand, which suggests that any slow reading is due to Saint-Saëns and not to the interpretation. Is it possible that some of the cuts were well advised? It certainly feels like one less hour of music would result in more streamlined storytelling. Nonetheless, finalists will definitely want the full Monty, every three and three quarter hours.
Composer: Camille Saint-Saëns
Work: Henry VIII
Performers: Michel ChioldiEllie Dehn, Hilary GintherOpera Odyssey, Gil Rose
Label: Odyssey Opera OO1005 (4CD)