Located roughly one hundred miles north of New York City in Annandale-on-Hudson, Bard College annually presents SummerScape, a wide-ranging performing arts festival. For many summers, serious opera lovers have been making the pilgrimage to experience works they’ve only read about or heard on recordings. This year, conductor Leon Botstein (who is also the university’s president) unearthed Henri VIII and Sir John in Love—two rarely performed works by celebrated composers Camille Saint-Saëns and Ralph Vaughn Williams, respectively. While neither of this year’s offerings turned out to be neglected masterpieces exactly, Botstein and his collaborators served up their classy revivals with earnest and infectious enthusiasm.
Saint-Saëns wrote eleven operas, but his Samson et Dalila remains the composer’s only lasting contribution to the standard repertoire. Strenuous objections to its Biblical subject matter delayed the French premiere for more than a decade. However, it was eventually embraced by audiences worldwide thanks primarily to Dalila’s three iconic seductive arias and the orgiastic Bacchanale ballet.
Henry VIII also presents a familiar story—the English king breaks with the Roman Catholic church to divorce his barren wife—but neither Saint-Saëns nor librettists Léonce Détroyat and Paul-Armand Silvestre fashioned Henri, Catherine d’Aragon or Anne Boleyn into memorable figures. Their love triangle, or rather quadrangle as the opera offers the Spanish ambassador Don Gómez de Ferla as Anne’s clandestine lover, rarely proves compelling; their confrontations reveal Saint-Saëns as merely competent rather than inspired. The riveting final scene in which a dying Catherine chooses not to reveal damning evidence she holds against Anne displays some of Samson’s fiery flair, but it comes too late to rescue a very long opera At Bard—even with the ballet omitted—it lasted over four hours with just one intermission.
Henri VIII is a favorite of Botstein, who led a semi-staged performance at SummerScape in 2012. This summer, it was welcomed back in Jean-Romain Vesperini’s dignified production abetted by Bruno de Lavenère’s economically evocative stage designs and Alain Blanchot’s sumptuous costumes. The American Symphony Orchestra played beautifully for Botstein, who reined in his tendency to sometimes drown out his singers, but a more tautly propulsive reading might have made Henri’s heavy grand opera components more gripping. As it was, the big ensembles just lumbered on.
Despite the opera’s title, Catherine proves to be its most sympathetic figure. While it can’t be easy to make righteous indignation compelling, Amanda Woodbury suffered beautifully. Though occasionally one wanted a bigger, more opulent voice, her clear, high soprano elegantly soared over the ensembles. Catherine prevailed over her ambitious rival, as Lindsay Ammann’s Anne too frequently offered strident highs and harshly chesty lows. She glamorously channeled “blonde ambition” but was inevitably overshadowed by her partners in lengthy duets with Catherine, Henri and Don Gómez.
The last was strikingly well sung by rising Canadian tenor Josh Lovell. From the first scene, his easy high notes rang out with brash clarity making one wish his part was larger. Aaron Blake, another tenor, also threatened to steal the show when he opened the fourth and final act as a smoothly elegant Garter King of Arms.
Remembered for his powerful Ruler in SummerScape’s Die Wunder der Heliane several years ago, Alfred Walker excelled as the strutting one-dimensional Henri. Though the singer made his Met debut more than twenty-five years ago, his sturdy bass-baritone remains in fine shape with powerful, house-filling high notes.
Henri VIII was recently revived in Europe, but it likely will remain a curiosity despite Botstein’s ardent advocacy. Meanwhile, Sir John in Love, presented as the eleventh and final program in SummerScape’s exhaustive “Vaughn Williams and his World” festival, has the bad luck of being overshadowed by another opera about Shakespeare’s rotund knight, Verdi’s great masterpiece Falstaff.
Sir John is also weighed down by its wide-ranging eclecticism. The composer mixes simple folk tunes with rapturously expansive orchestral interludes, fizzy comic ensembles with stentorian choruses. Vaughn Williams also wrote his own libretto, cobbling together bits of Shakespeare with folk song texts and the greatest hits of Elizabethan poets like Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe.
A lecturer before the opera’s semi-staging (no sets, simple costumes, onstage orchestra) argued that Vaughn Williams championed women in his adaptation of The Merry Wives of Windsor, but the opera might helpfully be retitled The Beleaguered Bachelors and Husbands of Windsor, as sixteen of the opera’s twenty singing roles are male. Mistress Ford, Mistress Page and her daughter Anne have relatively little to do, leaving Mistress Quickly the dominant female figure, a juicy role portrayed with ripe glee by Lucy Schaufer.
Dominating the afternoon instead were the surprisingly touching Falstaff of Craig Colclough and the boldly jealous Ford of William Socolof. Resonantly lovesick Colclough, under Alison Moritz’s subtly sly direction, eschewed broad clowning while mellifluous Socolof fumed with amusing exasperation. Though Joshua Blue’s brawny Fenton courted Brandie Sutton’s lovely Anne a bit too aggressively, together they reached ecstatic heights in a brief Straussian love duet. As her mother, Ann Toomey was only allowed to show glimpses of her bright soprano while lush mezzo Sarah Saturnino’s charismatic Mistress Ford briefly seized the spotlight as she attempted to seduce Falstaff with a sultry “Greensleeves.”
Other standouts in the marvelously effervescent cast included Theo Hoffman’s scampering Sir Hugh Evans, Lucia Lucas’ delightfully bossy Host of the Garter Inn, golden-voiced John Brancy as a frazzled Frenchman and the Ancient Pistol of booming bass Kevin Thompson.
One might not have expected the ever-dour Botstein to lead with such a light touch, but the comic scenes bubbled along while the extravagantly luscious interludes ravished the ear.
Botstein has exhumed remarkably diverse works like Weber’s Euryanthe, Rubinstein’s Demon, Busoni’s Turandot and Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt that one longed to see again. But not every revival is a bull’s eye: once was enough for Les Huguenots by Meyerbeer, my first SummerScape opera in 2009.
Usually, there’s a connection between the summer’s pair of operas, but this year only a slight Tudor link arose. Next summer’s deep-dive composer will be Berlioz with Botstein promising another return to French grand opera via Meyerbeer’s Le Prophète, not performed locally since the Met’s 1979 revival.
At the fifth and final Henri performance on July 30, famed architect Frank Gehry returned to celebrate the 20th anniversary of his striking Sosnoff Theater. First catching sight of its dazzling signature curved stainless steel roof tiles remains a highlight of each irresistible visit to Bard’s Fisher Center.