Bard SummerScape makes a project of excavating operas on the fringes of the standard repertory. This sometimes feels like an academic exercise, but occasionally, you encounter a piece that genuinely deserves reappraisal. Henry VIII by Camille Saint-Saëns falls into that category. A richly musical and dramatically vivid tale of court intrigue, the work satisfies with thrilling ensembles and deeply drawn characters. Conductor Leon Botstein and director Jean-Romain Vesperini employ lavish resources that show off the work in its best light, creating a human story on a truly grand scale.

Amanda Woodbury (Catherine of Aragon) and Alfred Walker (Henry VIII)
© Stephanie Berger

The libretto, by Léonce Détroyat and Paul-Armand Silvestre, eschews dry history for something closer to a Tudor-style soap opera. Although the English monarch takes the title spot, the spotlight falls on the two important women in his life: pious Catherine of Aragon, distraught by her husband’s infidelity and pining for her native Spain; and conniving Anne Boleyn, who seeks to burnish her place in court by becoming the king’s new wife. A delicious subplot also emerges, suggesting that Anne’s true love is the Spanish ambassador to England, Don Gómez de Feria, a secret only Catherine knows. How she wields this power becomes a driving force across the opera’s four acts.

Lindsay Ammann (Anne Boleyn) and Alfred Walker (Henry VIII)​​​​​​​
© Stephanie Berger

As a director, Vesperini doesn’t shy away from the story’s grandeur, and large crowd scenes featuring the exemplary Bard Festival Chorale (prepared superbly by James Bagwell) are often stirring. But he most keenly focuses on the interpersonal moments that dot the libretto – a tense encounter between a fading Catherine and a remorseful Anne; the early courtship between Anne and Henry, before matters turn sour. These beautifully self-contained scenes play out on Bruno de Lavanère’s remarkable set, which resembles a chess board set at a canted angle (in this story, everyone’s a pawn). Alain Blanchot’s costumes smartly delineate character, with Catherine festooned in mourning robes and Anne flitting about in canary yellow. Henry appears in a striking blood-red coat, signaling both his massive pride and the vengeance he will undertake when it’s wounded.

Josh Lovell (Don Gómez de Feria), Harold Wilson (Duke of Norfolk) and ensemble
© Stephanie Berger

Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra offered a lush reading of the score, with rich textures and a real sense of occasion in the opera’s most dramatically forceful music. The Synod scene of Act 3, where Henry breaks away from the Catholic Church and consigns Catherine to a “premature widowhood”, brimmed with tension, as slashing strings and ominous winds emerged from the pit. Although the piece itself stretches close to four hours, hardly any of the music felt superfluous. In a clever trick, the opera’s ballet music – a formality of the time – was played appealingly by a wind quintet in the lobby during intermission.

Alfred Walker’s sonorous bass-baritone rang forth as Henry, and he created a fully dimensional character, repugnant yet pathetic, that you couldn’t help but pity. Amanda Woodbury was the picture of righteousness as Catherine. A touch more weight in her sound would have been welcome in her Act 4 aria, but her crystalline, easily produced soprano largely suited the French style. Lindsay Ammann brought a true contralto sound to Anne Boleyn, which further underlined the unusual vocal contrast between the authoritative queen – here a high soprano – and the upstart. Ammann’s acting was as riveting as her voice, suggesting doubt in Anne’s quest for power even as she charts her course to a pyrrhic victory. Josh Lovell’s pliant tenor made him an appropriately ardent Don Gómez.

Alfred Walker (Henry VIII) with the Bard Festival Chorale
© Stephanie Berger

Some supporting roles were handled with a lack of distinction. Christian Zaremba sang the papal legate, Cardinal Campeggio, with a distressingly wide vibrato, and the usually reliable Harold Wilson disappointed as the Duke of Norfolk. Even so, the positive elements on display at Bard suggest that Henry VIII deserves a greater audience. Heavy may be the head that wears the crown, but in the passionate world of Saint-Saëns, everyone is in danger of losing their senses.