In the decades following World War I (1914-18), the classical music world traveled a pathway that has proven to be an unwise change of direction. It moved away from its traditional foundation on folk …
In the decades following World War I (1914-18), the classical music world traveled a pathway that has proven to be an unwise change of direction. It moved away from its traditional foundation on folk and popular music and chose an artificially contrived “method” known as 12-tone serialism as its harmonic foundation.
The resultant dichotomy between what audiences heard at home and on the radio and what they heard in concert halls and opera houses relegated contemporary classical music to the province of a smaller and smaller coterie of professionals who were often accused of composing for each other rather than for the audiences that had once supported their efforts.
During the subsequent decades, only a few brave musicians remained faithful to traditional harmonic idioms. Composers such as Sergei Rachmaninoff, Jean Sibelius, Béla Bartók, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Sergei Prokofiev, Igor Stravinsky, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Americans such as Samuel Barber, of West Chester, never abandoned tonality and modality even though they were often mocked as throwbacks to another era.
The results were catastrophic for audience attendance. Programming contemporary classical music proved a guarantor for empty seats. It was even worse for opera. The last secure addition to the standard repertoire turned out to be Giacomo Puccini’s “Turandot,” which premiered in 1926, two years after the composer’s death.
For most of the classical music world, desperate attempts to lure audiences back have been partially successful, at best. Even now, most contemporary classical composers have failed to connect with potential audiences.
With the repertoire almost “frozen” in the past, some inspired music directors have chosen to look into those bygone years to uncover unfairly overlooked works that deserve a second look and listen. No one in America does it better than Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College in Avondale, New York, where for the past two decades-plus he has hosted “Summerscape.” The festival focuses on the works of a chosen composer as well as artists in various disciplines from the same era.
This year’s chosen composer was Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), a musician whose music has always been loved by audiences but who has equally been under-valued by some in the classical music world. The festival’s “uncovered” operatic masterpiece was Camille Saint-Saens’ “Henri VIII.” I caught its performance on Sunday afternoon, July 30 – the ninth opera I’ve had the pleasure of attending at Bard’s splendid Sosnoff Theater.
Composed in 1883, “Henri VIII” clocks in at four-and-a-half hours if the second act ballet music is included. Botstein and director Jean-Romain Vesperini – not wanting to cut such beautiful instrumental music but realizing that it makes the opera unacceptably long -- came up with a brilliant maneuver. They had the ballet music played during intermission as a woodwind quintet.
The libretto focuses on Henri’s attempt to divorce his legitimate and devoutly Roman Catholic wife, Queen Catherine of Aragon, in order to marry his Protestant paramour, Anne Boleyn, in the misplaced hope of achieving a male heir. When the Pope refuses to grant the king an annulment, he breaks the bond between the English Church and Rome, putting in motion the establishment of the Church of England outside the Catholic Church.
Saint-Saens’ score is a masterpiece of thorough composition that drives relentlessly and beautifully to its troubling conclusion. Both the vocal and instrumental writing are memorable, with each of the four principal roles given glorious music to sing.
Catherine is a soaring soprano sung sumptuously by Amanda Woodbury. Henri is a monstrous bass-baritone sung powerfully by Alfred Walker. Anne is a vicious mezzo sung tartly by Lindsay Ammann. And Don Gomez de Feria – a non-historic figure added in for romantic interest – is a dramatic tenor sung magnificently by Josh Lovell.
Botstein’s conducting of the American Symphony Orchestra was masterful and Vesperini’s stage direction was simple, but potent.
If ever there was an opera that deserves to take its place in the active repertoire of companies and schools all over the world – including our own Opera Philadelphia and Academy of Vocal Arts – it’s Saint-Saens’ “Henri VIII.” My fingers are crossed.
You can contact NOTEWORTHY at Michaelfirstname.lastname@example.org. You can contact Bard College for next year’s “Summerscape” at fishercenter.bard.edu or at 845-758-7900.