Gil Rose

Henry VIII / Odyssey Opera

Ed Tapper READ TIME: 4 MIN.

Initiating its 2019-20 season, Boston's Odyssey Opera presented a concert performance of Saint-Saens 1883 "Henry VIII" at NEC's Jordan Hall on Saturday evening. Committed to reviving just such operatic rarities, the company has selected an eclectic group of works from the 19th and 20th centuries for their new season.

The unifying theme is the legendary English ruling family, "The Tudors." Eschewing obvious choices such as Donizetti's "Anna Bolena," Odyssey has selected seldom performed works on similar subjects by Rossini, and his Bel Canto colleague Giovanni Pacini. The season also includes two Modernist works, "The Chronicle of Nine" by Arnold Rosner, and Britten's "Gloriana," another opera concerning Elizabeth the Queen. For comic relief, the season will close with a lighthearted British opera, "Merrie England" of Edward German. However, the "Henry VIII" proved so impressive, that it will be a tough act to follow. What appeared as a total lark became one of the most significant events of Boston's music scene in recent years.

"Henry VIII" is an unusual case in the repertoire of the French Romantic master Camille Saint-Saens, best known for his biblical music drama "Samson et Dalila." Befitting his subject matter, the composer wove into his score a number of Renaissance, secular and folk melodies from throughout the British Isles. These appear more noticeably in the orchestral preludes to the acts, as well as in the dance sequences. Yet, from a stylistic standpoint, the music, with its lush harmonies, broad, lyrical vocal lines, and rich orchestral sonorities, is pure Saint-Saens. And it is of consistently high caliber – often brilliantly conceived, and affecting. Likewise the plot engages, with the composer seizing on Henry's Schism from the Papacy for great dramatic effect.

The four act-opera is set at a specific time period in the life of the great monarch, from his divorcing Catherine of Aragon to his marrying Ann Boleyn. The first act suggests the tense relationships between the members of the royal family and their entourage. The plot has Ann Boleyn confronting a former lover, Don Gomez, the Spanish ambassador, who may prove an obstacle in her plans to wed Henry and become queen. Yeghishe Manucharyan returned to Odyssey in the role of the Don, with his firm, tenor sound in fine condition. He sang with his characteristic security of tone and a high level of musicianship.

Another confrontation duet then ensued, between Catherine and Henry. It exhibits his dissatisfaction with their marriage, while setting the entire plot in motion. The gifted Michael Chioldi appeared in the title role, and the audience was treated to some true, world class baritone singing. The voice is scaled for a venue larger than Jordan Hall. It is dark in timbre, and extremely focused. Moments such as Henry's Act IV monologue and the final passages of the opera were nothing short of thrilling.

The second act really belongs to the character of Ann Boleyn, who is given a solo scene, three duets, and a final octet. Mezzo soprano Hilary Ginther was vocally and dramatically impressive in the role. She acts well with her voice, and did not hesitate to plunge into her chest register for dramatic emphasis, while never compromising the beauty of her tone.

The large ensemble that ends the act had been cut after the premiere of the work, and was but one of the numbers restored by Odyssey in its revival of the complete score. The company is also to be commended for performing the complete ballet music, which was intended to be interpolated at the end of the act. It was a highlight of the evening and exhibited Saint-Saens at his very best, containing a variety of colorful orchestral effects, and beguiling melodies, in this case infused with a distinct English flavor.

The plot builds to an impressive climax in the third act, which includes the trial scene in which Henry makes his schism with Rome and pronounces himself head of the English church. It is not difficult to draw an analogy to the Judgement Scene in Verdi's "Aida," composed a dozen years earlier. Bass Kevin Deas was the standout in this act, singing the role of Cardinal Campeggio, the Legate. His warm, rich bass poured across Saint-Saens expansive melodic lines in his major aria. The act closed with a massive ensemble that was nothing short of staggering.

By the fourth act, Boleyn is married to Henry, and the embittered Catherine has retreated to the solitude of her castle. She opts not to divulge the secret of Ann's affair with Gomez, which would dissolve Ann's marriage to the suspicious Henry. As the heroic Catherine takes her last breath, Henry warns Ann that if he should discover evidence of her affair, the axe will fall. Soprano Ellie Dehn appeared as Catherine of Aragon, and dominated the final act with her exquisite singing. Her angelic, limpid soprano was ideal for her final aria, in which she sadly claims she will never again see her homeland (another echo of "Aida)" Her death scene was quite convincing, extremely well acted and sung.

With such a terrific cast, a top-notch chorus and orchestra, and Gil Rose's expert conducting, Odyssey Opera's "Henry VIII" was a production about which even the Met could be envious.

In early November, the company regroups at the Huntington Theatre, with a rare gem of the Italian Bel Canto, presenting fully staged performances of Pacini's "Maria, Regina d'Inghilterra."

For more information on Odyssey Opera, visit the company's website.

by Ed Tapper

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