Review: Odyssey Records Recording of HENRY VIII by Saint-Saens

Odyssey has given us an important document of an opera that few have heard in its entirety but deserves greater recognition.

By: May. 20, 2022
Review: Odyssey Records Recording of HENRY VIII by Saint-Saens

A new recording of Saint-Saens's opera HENRY VIII, by Odyssey Opera, has come my way. It is a complete version of the work which is dated 1883. Odyssey Opera is a company dedicated to the performance of operas that are out of the mainstream but are deemed worthy of recognition.

HENRY VIII is certainly not performed very often. Since the composer's death in 1921, the opera has been staged in 1935, 1983, 1991 and 2002 with a few additional concert performances. The performance captured here is a concert performance from Boston in 2019.

The opera demonstrates the composer's ability to maintain a narrative line over the course of a long evening. This live recording is probably the closest we will come to a complete version, including ballet music as well as restored vocal passages. The work reinforces Saint-Saens's gift for choral composition which is evident in his widely performed SAMSON ET DALILA.

The story of the opera is that of Henry VIII and the dissolution of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon due to his infatuation with the young Anne Boleyn. One character that may not be familiar, but who plays a prominent role, is that of Spanish ambassador Don Gomez, who has also fallen in love with Anne; their relationship is a subplot but an interesting addition to the story.

The crux of the opera is Henry's attempt to declare himself head of the Church of England so that he, himself, can dissolve his marriage to Catherine, who has been a good and faithful spouse, and marry Anne. During the dramatic trial scene, Henry's judges side with him and Catherine loses her position as Queen.

As alluded to earlier, the chorus plays a dominant role and their music falls very pleasingly on the ear. The astonishing choral ending to Act 3, where the English people support the King, despite the fact that he has just been excommunicated, is one of the most memorable passages in the entire work. The ballet music, which previously has been recorded separately on other labels, was almost a requirement in French opera. Even Verdi had to add a ballet in MACBETH for it's French iteration.

The wonderful cast is led by Michael Chioldi, as Henry, with a firm and attractive baritone; he commands the stage whenever he sings. Chioldi was recently in the spotlight when he was seen at the Met in the new production of RIGOLETTO, singing the title role on short notice. Ellie Dehn sings the put-upon Catherine of Aragon with a generous, expressive soprano voice.

Hilary Ginther sings Ann Boleyn with a pleasing, dusky mezzo. The Spanish ambassador, Don Gomez, is sung by Yeghishe Manucharyan whose striking tenor voice I shall certainly be watching. Other roles are well-handled by David Kravitz, Kevin Deas, Matthew Dibattista, David Cushing, Erin Merceruio Nelson, and Jeremy Ayres Fisher. The seemingly omnipresent chorus is led by Gil Rose as is the spot-on orchestra.

The sound is excellent; It is a live recording but the audience is extremely well-behaved.