July 21–30: Bard SummerScape Presents First Major American Production of Saint-Saëns’s Grand Opera Henri VIII
“Some of the most important summer opera experiences in the U.S. are … at Bard SummerScape.” – Financial TimesApril 2023, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY — As a highlight of its landmark 20th anniversary season: Breaking Ground, Bard SummerScape presents the first major new American production of Camille Saint-Saëns’s unjustly neglected grand opera Henri VIII. Starring bass-baritone Alfred Walker, who combines “vocal heft and theatrical intensity” (Wall Street Journal), Henri VIII will run for five performances in an original staging by visionary French director Jean-Romain Vesperini in the Frank Gehry-designed Fisher Center on Bard’s glorious Hudson Valley campus (July 21, 23, 26, 28, and 30). All five performances will be anchored by the American Symphony Orchestra and Bard Festival Chorale under the leadership of festival founder and co-artistic director Leon Botstein, of whose rare concert performance of the opera at SummerScape 2012, the New York Times observed: “Well paced by Mr. Botstein and played with infectious enthusiasm by the American Symphony Orchestra, the music throughout is simply gorgeous.” Botstein will give an Opera Talk before the first Sunday matinee (July 23), and the third performance will stream live online (July 26) with an encore presentation three days later (July 29). Chartered coach transportation from New York City will be available for two matinees (July 23 and 30), and there will be a premiere party and intermission toast on the opening night (July 21), with a members’ toast before the final performance (July 30). As Musical America puts it, Bard SummerScape is now “an indispensable part of the summer operatic landscape.”
Saint-Saëns and Henri VIII
The subject of the 2012 Bard Music Festival, Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921) helped shape the course of French music over the course of his long and remarkable career. Today his operatic reputation rests solely on Samson et Dalila and, even during his lifetime, he was best known for his orchestral and chamber works. Yet the composer wrote no fewer than twelve operas, winning promotion to the rank of Officier de l’Ordre national de la Légion d’honneur with the help of his fifth, Henri VIII (1883). Set in England, the birthplace of Ralph Vaughan Williams – the subject of this year’s Bard Music Festival, “Vaughan Williams and His World” – Henri VIII remained in the Paris Opéra repertoire throughout Saint-Saëns’s lifetime, for a total of 87 performances, besides touring to Milan, Monte Carlo, Antwerp, Frankfurt, Prague, Moscow, and London, where its success was one of the biggest of his career. Subsequent revivals have been rare, however, even in Europe. Henri VIII only received its U.S. premiere in 1974, and this season’s SummerScape staging marks its first major American production to date.
Owed largely to the prevalence of musical modernism, such neglect was far from justified. In its depiction of the historic love triangle between the Tudor king, his first wife, and the mistress who became his second, the opera boasts some of Saint-Saëns’s richest orchestration and most exquisite vocal writing. Pronouncing Henri VIII “an opera to savour,” Gramophone writes: “This work, though very rarely heard, is not only written with outstanding skill … and some thematic distinction, but has a strong dramatic libretto with firm characterization.”
The libretto is the work of Saint-Saëns’s collaborators Léonce Détroyat and Paul-Armand Silvestre, who based their account on La cisma de Inglaterra (“The Schism in England”) by Spanish playwright Pedro Calderón de la Barca. Drawing additional elements from Shakespeare and John Fletcher’s Henry VIII, Détroyat and Silvestre dramatize Henry’s fateful split from the Roman Catholic church, which allowed him to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn, in hopes of producing a male heir and ensuring the Tudor succession.
Director Jean-Romain Vesperini and his vision
To stage the opera, the Fisher Center at Bard turned to French director Jean-Romain Vesperini, whose previous credits include original productions for Paris National Opera, Opera Hong Kong, and Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater. Well-versed in the French grand opera tradition and its roots in tragédie lyrique, Vesperini has mounted rarities by Benjamin Godard and Victorin de Joncières, while his original treatment of Gounod’s Faust prompted Canada’s Journal de Québec to marvel:
“The staging is of high quality and caliber. … A production that will please both connoisseurs and those who want to learn about this art form, … this house production is a success and one of the finest presented in recent seasons in Quebec.”
Henri VIII marks the director’s first foray into Saint-Saëns. He explains:
“One of the things that most interests me about Henri VIII is the way Saint-Saëns mixes French grand opera with psychological drama. It’s not only about gigantic spectacle. There’s one big trial scene, but the plot is also driven by the characters and their psychology. It’s mostly about one man and his passions: love, jealousy, and betrayal. His relationships are very strong, and tensions run high.”
Vesperini finds it telling that Henri VIII dates from the period that gave rise to Freud’s theories of psychoanalysis. He says:
“The arias and conversations are about the inner feelings of a man who changes his mind from one day to the next. When Henri first meets Anne, they sing a beautiful love duet together. But the king has also ordered the beheading of his ex-best friend! At the exact same time that the couple is flirting, monks are chanting at the funeral procession for the executed man. We literally hear the mix of Eros and Thanatos within the music itself.”
Thanks to the director’s own French background, he understands the resonance Saint-Saëns would have found in his source material. In late-19th-century France, the relationship between divorce, Catholicism, and the law was all too topical. Following a brief period of legalization in revolutionary and Napoleonic France, a national ban on divorce was reinstated until shortly after the premiere of Henri VIII. Vesperini says:
“Saint-Saëns was not just an artist. He was a political man who was very involved with the public life of his country. He wanted to write a historical opera, but one that addressed contemporary issues too. Today the story of Henry VIII doesn’t speak to us in the same way because divorce is normal and accepted. But that wasn’t the case in Saint-Saëns’s France. Divorce was a big topic of conversation in French society. Many people were in favor, but the most devout Catholics were still against it. That’s why it makes sense that Saint-Saëns chose to tell the story of a king who had to split from the Catholic church to obtain a divorce.”
Leon Botstein and the score
In preparing his production, Vesperini worked closely with festival founder Leon Botstein. The Fisher Center at Bard, Botstein, and the American Symphony Orchestra have long been recognized for their ardent championship of rare French opera. Past productions include the first fully staged American production of Chausson’s King Arthur (“Le roi Arthus”), the first staged revival of the original version of Chabrier’s Le roi malgré lui, a celebrated staging of Meyerbeer’s extravaganza Les Huguenots, and concert accounts of Dukas’s Ariane et Barbe-bleue, Lalo’s Le roi d’Ys, and Henri VIII itself.
In the eleven years that have passed since that concert performance of Henri VIII, scholars have discovered new material in Saint-Saëns’s autograph manuscript of the opera. After consulting this new material, Botstein and Vesperini collaborated to find what the director describes as “the most interesting version of the score – artistically, dramatically and musically.” Together they made a number of key decisions. They expanded several scenes, restored a climactic vocal septet at the end of Act II, omitted the light ballet that would traditionally have followed it, and developed the character of Don Gómez de Feria, the Spanish ambassador introduced (somewhat anachronistically) by playwright Calderón as a lover of Anne Boleyn’s.
The creative team and cast
To help realize his vision, Vesperini has assembled an outstanding creative team that includes some of his most trusted collaborators. Designed by Alain Blanchot, Henri VIII’s costumes conjure the grandeur of traditional French opera with faithfully reproduced styles from the Tudor period. By contrast, Bruno de Lavenère’s minimalist sets help position Henri VIII as psychological drama. Decorated with a pattern inspired by Henry’s Hampton Court home, a simple raked platform grounds the action, while a circular mirror reflects it and doubles as the moon. For richness and depth, the platform is hung around with chainmail curtains that serve as a blank canvas for Thomas Ocampo’s evocative video projections. Complete with lighting by Christophe Chaupin, the production concept is designed, Vesperini explains, “to develop the audience’s fantasy and imagination.”
SummerScape’s Henri VIII will star bass-baritone Alfred Walker in the title role. Last seen at Bard in 2019’s The Miracle of Heliane, Walker also appears this season at the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and San Francisco Opera, where, as Tosca’s Scarpia, he previously impressed Opera News with his “beautiful bass-baritone and physical magnetism” as well as “the threat of psychological and physical violence [that] lurked behind his polished manners.” Walker sings opposite the Catherine d’Aragon of soprano Amanda Woodbury, a Grand Finals Winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, with mezzo-soprano Lindsay Ammann – “a force to be dealt with” (Opera News) – as the beautiful but ambitious Anne Boleyn. Rounding out the quartet of principals is Canadian tenor Josh Lovell – “a handsome sounding tenor with a warm, liquid voice and easy high notes” (The Guardian) – as Don Gómez de Feria. The first-rate cast also features two returning basses: Kevin Thompson, last seen in 2019’s “world-class production” (Opera Wire) of The Miracle of Heliane, sings Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury; and the Duke of Norfolk, Anne’s uncle, is sung by Harold Wilson, who “command[ed] a sonorous bass” (New York Times) in the leading role of 2022’s production of The Silent Woman, which confirmed SummerScape’s reputation for “essential summertime fare for the serious American opera-goer” (Financial Times).
To download high-resolution photos, click here.
Round-trip bus transportation from New York City
Chartered coach transportation from New York City is available for the matinee performances on Sunday, July 23 and Sunday, July 30. This may be ordered online or by calling the box office, and the meeting point for coach pick-up (at 9am) and drop-off (at approximately 8:15pm) is at Lincoln Center, Amsterdam Avenue, between 64th and 65th Streets. More information is available here.
Tickets for mainstage events start at $25. For complete information regarding tickets, series discounts, and more, visit fishercenter.bard.edu or call Bard’s box office at (845) 758-7900.
The Fisher Center at Bard’s 20th anniversary season, “Breaking Ground”
The Fisher Center’s 20th anniversary season, “Breaking Ground,” is designed to celebrate the artists, audiences, students, faculty, and communities who have written the story of the Fisher Center’s first two decades and whose imaginations will go on to shape its future. A milestone season for the organization that incubates vanguard artists’ boldest ideas, “Breaking Ground” presents original, genre-defying approaches to dance, theater, opera, and public discourse. The season will culminate with a groundbreaking ceremony for the Fisher Center’s new 25,000-square-foot performing arts studio building. Designed by Maya Lin, this will offer vastly expanded space for artists at all stages of their careers to build new works from the ground up.
Henri VIII has received support from Villa Albertine.
The Fisher Center’s 20th Anniversary Season is dedicated to the founders of the Fisher Center who have cultivated extraordinary artistic experiences – past, present, and future. The Fisher Center honors the memory of Richard B. Fisher, a true champion of the arts and Bard College, and his visionary leadership.
The Fisher Center’s 20th Anniversary Season is generously supported by Jeanne Donovan Fisher, the Martin and Toni Sosnoff Foundation, Felicitas S. Thorne, the Advisory Boards of the Fisher Center at Bard and Bard Music Festival, Fisher Center and Bard Music Festival members, the Ettinger Foundation, the Thendara Foundation, and the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Kathy Hochul and the New York State Legislature. Fisher Center LAB has received funding from members of the Live Arts Bard Creative Council, the Lucille Lortel Foundation, and the Fisher Center’s Artistic Innovation Fund, with lead support from Rebecca Gold and S. Asher Gelman ’06 through the March Forth Foundation.
Henri VIII (1883)
Composed by Camille Saint-Saëns
Libretto by Léonce Détroyat and Paul-Armand Silvestre
Sosnoff Theater, Fisher Center
Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY
Friday, July 21 at 6:30pm (Premiere Party at 5pm; Opening Night Intermission Toast)
Sunday, July 23 at 2pm (Pre-Performance Opera Talk with Leon Botstein at 12pm)
Wednesday, July 26 at 2pm
Friday, July 28 at 4pm
Sunday, July 30 at 2pm (Pre-Performance Toast for Members at 1pm)
The July 26 performance will stream live online at 2pm EDT, with an encore presentation at 5pm EDT on July 29.
American Symphony Orchestra
Bard Festival Chorale
Conducted by Leon Botstein
Directed by Jean-Romain Vesperini
Set design: Bruno de Lavenère
Costume design: Alain Blanchot
Video projections: Thomas Ocampo
Lighting design: Christophe Chaupin
Henri VIII: Alfred Walker, bass-baritone
Catherine d’Aragon: Amanda Woodbury, soprano
Anne Boleyn: Lindsay Ammann, mezzo-soprano
Don Gómez de Feria: Josh Lovell, tenor
Cardinal Campeggio: Christian Zaremba, bass
Duke of Norfolk: Harold Wilson, bass
Le comte de Surrey: Rodell Rosel, tenor
Cranmer/Archbishop of Canterbury: Kevin Thompson, bass
Lady Clarence: Alaysha Fox, soprano
Garter King of Arms: Aaron Blake tenor
Sung in French with English supertitles
SummerScape 2023: other key dates
June 23–July 2
Theater/dance: Illinois by Justin Peck, Sufjan Stevens and Jackie Sibblies Drury
(world premiere of new SummerScape commission)
June 23–Aug 12
Spiegeltent: live music and dancing
20th anniversary community day celebration featuring Flor de Toloache (free)
Bard Music Festival: Vaughan Williams and His World
Weekend One: Victorians, Edwardians, and Moderns
Bard Music Festival: Vaughan Williams and His World
Weekend Two: A New Elizabethan Age?
All programs subject to change
This event was last updated on 04-24-2023