Camille Saint-Saens: Henry VIII (1881)

Opera en quatres actes. Running Time: 3 hours 5 minutes.


The mammoth is here! Saint-Saens sprawling take of Tudor history.

PLOT: England, 1521 to 1536. Henry VIII wants to divorce his wife Catherine of Aragon to marry Anne Boleyn and declares himself head of the Anglican Church. That is it really, but for four long acts and with a rather fetching Spanish diplomat tenor role who would have actually been ten years old when the opera takes place but who is apparently in love with Anne and thus provides most of the b-plot narrative which involves Catherine rescuing her rival by burning a love letter to her from the Spanish Ambassador.


ACT 1: A public room in the palace with two large windows, 1530 although the execution of Buckingham was in May 1521. (45 minutes)

0: The prelude has one very good tune (symbolizing England and reappearing in the third act) ** which is continuously reworked for two and a half minutes. I feel like it comes on just slightly too quickly, it’s first appearance is about three bars in, but otherwise it is a great tune, even if one can tell Saint-Saens had a field day with the intervals of this thing. Not much else to say really except for a regal tune that comes in before one last go at England and we are off into the act.

4: The Duke of Norfolk greets the Spanish ambassador Don Gomez. They go down memory lane to when they were both at the French court and Gomez fell in love with… you guessed it, her hair is as gold as wheat… Norfolk informs him that Anne is off limits, the King wants her for himself, but Gomez tells Norfolk that Anne actually loves him. Delightful stuff this, especially Gomez’ long, fetching, and lilting cantabile ** in the middle.

11, 19: Male courtiers arrive and inform the two men that the Duke of Buckingham has been condemned to death. This turns into a rather grand ensemble ** before Henry’s arrival. Gomez is introduced to Henry as the Spanish ambassador and he expresses best wishes to the Spanish, particularly from Queen Catherine. Left alone with the Count of Surrey Henry worries about his adulterous love for Anne ***.

23: Catherine’s arrival and her interview ** with Henry mostly consist of courtesies at first but rapidly becomes much more passionate, at least from Catherine’s side. Henry threatens her with this new concept known as “divorce” which Catherine (being a good Catholic) completely rejects as mad sacrilege. They break off disagreeably if musically well.

35, 38, 42: The act finale starts with the arrival of Anne & Company. Anne immediately recognizes Don Gomez and recognizes the dangerous position she is now in due to his presence. It is only when the female chorus finally takes charge as Anne makes her rounds and Catherine makes some comments that the number rises ** but eventually the focus changes to the execution of Buckingham *** (which parallels Henry’s protestations of love to Anne and obviously foreshadows her own fate). By the end she begs him to be silent. The act ends in a fugal canon *** in which the Spector of Death is constantly present. Magnificent, if understated.

ACT 2:  1533. (58 minutes)

Scene 1: The Royal Gardens near the apartments of Anne Boleyn.

0, 4, 8: A lovely entr’acte ** is apparently composed of little bits of Tudor-era melodies. It is followed by an off-stage chorus (sopranos and tenors) ** and the arrival of Don Gomez who is desperately suffering from want of Anne **.

10: Anne holds court ** (mostly supported by the sopranos and altos of her chorus at first). When she finally sings it takes off very well.

13: Anne encounters Don Gomez **, he protests his love but she really just wants him to hush up because she has a good thing going with Henry and doesn’t want the boy with the spicy chorizo to ruin it all.

16, 24, 26, 30: Henry arrives and orders Gomez out. His duet with Anne *** moves with sexual agitation as Anne continues to refuse Henry: Henry: I want you! Anne: You won’t get a thing if I ain’t got that ring!. He eventually consents to her request **, and Anne replies to a lush orchestral accompaniment *** which returns to Henry’s noble melody which has dominated most of the last quarter hour. Anne reflects on what the King has said to her in arioso **.

32, 41: Catherine’s entrance and interview with Anne *** goes from Catherine being nicy-nice to Anne to Anne almost scratching her rivals’ eyes out. Henry arrives and orders the Queen out and Catherine forgets one very important thing, she is Queen but only queen consort and Henry is the one person who can override anything she commands ***. The Papal Legate arrives but is delayed until the following day and Henry promises Anne everything to his sexy Tudor theme.

Scene 2: A public place in the garden.

44: With nothing left to happen until the following day we get the ballet, this one a mercifully short 14 minutes although some of the tunes will be far too familiar to anyone raised in the Anglo-sphere. The theme is a combination of Scottish clans and Gypsies, an odd choice given that the Scots are hardly English (although neither was the Welsh Henry Tudor) and I don’t think England had Gypsies yet. Still, as far as opera-ballets go, this one isn’t bad **. They end up breaking the fourth wall by applauding the dancers. Also notice that Henry never applauds the male dancer. The act ends abruptly with the finish of the ballet.

ACT 3: The following day. (36 minutes)

Technically, there is an entire scene that has been cut, amounting to 34 pages in the vocal score. It involves Henry, Anne, the Papal Legat, Surrey, and Norfolk and includes a long monologue in which Henry complains about the Roman Papacy taking too much of his power as King of England. The scene that follows, however, is 103 pages. 

Scene 1: An antechamber in the palace.

0: The act beings with one of the most recognizable fanfares in musical history. Meanwhile, in the plot, Henry has married Anne and the annulment to Catherine is basically assured. The entr’acte (or rather the Marche du Synode) during which this transpires is one of the most beguiling pieces of the score *** although I feel that it never goes in the direction I would want it to go exactly. Still amazing.

Scene 2: The Synod.

7: Catherine comes in full force. The Archbishop pronounces the benediction *** which is really a full scale 14-part ensemble number for the chorus and

12: Henry gives his testimony ** about how Catherine was his brother’s wife and so his own marriage to her is incest.

14, 19: Catherine gives her testimony at first with the passion of a wind-up toy but she soon turns to something much stronger and genuine as she makes an impassioned plea for mercy **. She wins over the people with her neglected wife routine *** which may or may not be genuine (in the opera that is).

21: Don Gomez gives his own passionately Spanish take on the situation ** to be beguiling trumpet based-melody. The chorus freaks after this.

26: The Archbishop wants to pronounce the marriage null and void but Catherine is hearing none of it and goes down like a Valkyrie in battle array **.

28, 33: The Papal Legate arrives *** and pronounces that Catherine is not annulled, but Henry pulls one last card out: he declares himself head of the Church of England. Although the Legate, Catherine, Gomez, and the Spanish are all in horror of this, the people themselves just love the idea of having their own church for some reason praise it with the old English national anthem which was that tune from the opening prelude of act 1 ***.

ACT 4: January 1536. (45 minutes)

Scene 1: Garden of the Queen’s chambers during the King’s birthday festivities.

0, 12, 14: The entr’acte, yet again spellbinding ***. While Anne watches a dance performance, Surrey and Norfolk discuss Henry’s loss of interest in her and ex-queen Catherine who now lives in neglect at Kimbolt Castle. Don Gomez arrives and freaks Anne out. He bears a message from Catherine, who is obviously dying. Henry arrives and Anne leaves complaining of ill health. Don Gomez delivers Catherine’s message to Henry in a sad aria **. Henry demonstrates genuine concern for her welfare and decides to go to Kimbolt himself **.

Scene 2: Catherine’s chambers in Kimbolt Castle.

16: The intermezzo ** is an incredibly impassioned piece as the scenery gets changed.

20: Catherine overhears the off-stage choral acclaim of her (ex-)husband (?) (again English National Anthem). she knows that death is imminent **, which in opera means within the next half-hour. There are two plot points here: 1) she still loves Henry and 2) she has a certain love letter from Gomez to Anne.

30: Anne arrives **, Catherine gets on the defensive as her rival begs for help, imploring their belief in Christianity (this doesn’t go very far). Anne spills the beans about the love letter being from Gomez to Anne and she wants Catherine to destroy it, which Catherine has pretended not to know anything about but she takes it from her prayerbook.

35, 38, 42: Finally there is high drama as Henry and Gomez arrive ***, most of it coming from Henry *** as the guilty pair remain so terrified they can hardly move. Catherine meanwhile worries about the fate of her fellow Spaniard Gomez should the letter’s contents be revealed. The background chorus only helps as Henry goes into a love song for Anne and Catherine ultimately burns the letter. There is a great climax *** for the four as Catherine dies. Henry is determined to find out the truth, evidence or not. Anne collapses in terror. Curtain.


Although Samson et Dalila is for some reason Saint-Saens most popular opera, Henry VIII is by far his best. It isn’t a static oratorio (albeit good oratorio) filled with ennui, the sedate emotional dryness that afflicts all of his other operas including Samson, nor is it saddled to a senseless, dramatically inept livret. Here we have Meyerbeer (posthumously) meets Saint-Saens with a great historical subject, great musical and dramatic characterizations, a sense of early-16th century Tudor England (the score is filled with period English melodies), and a tenor role that is as delicious as it is historically implausible. Henry VIII is one of those operas that upsets you because it isn’t well known enough. It has all of the ingredients of a great opera: a familiar historical setting, great characterizations for the lead roles, a terrific score which is able to sustain even its recitatives with a brilliance essentially unheard of otherwise (although it is true that by act four my interest began to wane somewhat), and yet it lays in dormant obscurity. Why? Why producers of La Scala, Sidney, Paris, the Met, why? Is it too “big”? You said that of Meyerbeer, and it doesn’t seem to be stopping those 60 performances of Huguenots and the 50 of Prophete that occur across the globe every year now. Apart from the Synod Scene most of the opera consists of dialogue between pairings of two to four characters, this is hardly even Aida. The only things that can be faulted in this production are the bass singing the Papal Legate and the fact that the costuming crew fell into the trap of depicting the red-haired Catherine of Aragon as a stereotyped Spanish brunette. I also like how this production frames the love-talk of Henry and Anne in darkness whereas the rest of the opera is usually performed with full lighting. An alpha plus.

27 responses to “Camille Saint-Saens: Henry VIII (1881)”

  1. Yes, this is something special! Scholarly without being dryly academic, as so much of S-S’s works are. The Synod scene is magnificent; the foundation of the C of E in an ensemble!

    Someone ( suggested the opera is an adult, psychological opera; that may be why it’s a rarity – caviar to the general.

    Still, in an age that loves the Rhys-Meyers Tudors and Wolf Hall, surely some opera company would be adventurous enough to take it on! Instead, they do Anna Bolena (good, second-tier Donizetti) &c – because they’re vehicles for bel canto prima donnas.

    “Henry VIII is one of those operas that upsets you because it isn’t well known enough.”

    The problem with French opera as a whole! It’s wonderful, but rarely gets staged. Henry VIII got, I think, its first US performance at the Bard Music Festival in 2012. The Met’s lineup (like Sydney’s) is conservative; they tend to do warhorses, and make a song and dance when they mount works regularly staged in Europe. (Look at the Met in HD season – Aida, Traviata, Carmen, Walkure, Fille du reg again! At least they’re doing Dialogues des Carmelites.)

    Tempted by Ascanio at all?


    1. Where find I a recording of it? I know what you mean because it is basically the same as Benvenuto Cellini but with a derivative score in five acts. I was thinking about Etienne Marcel or Proserpine since the recordings are readily available on YouTube. I would do Les barbares were it available without having to buy the recording.


      1. The CD was published a month ago. The Etienne Marcel on YouTube apparently has the acts round the wrong way; try Operabase for a cheap copy.


      2. Really? The acts are in the wrong order? Thanks for the warning! I’ll look up Ascanio then. I started working on Proserpine about a week ago but after about ten minutes I gave up on it. I do have a template started for it, but no “stars” yet.

        Are you surprised that Henry VIII got no one-stars from me? I looked it over afterwards and noticed it was all two and three star entries! That is a first!


      3. And Saint-Saens achieved it!


      4. I know, he probably didn’t deserve it either!

        Actually I’ve known Saint-Saens Carnival of the Animals and Organ Symphony for so long, it is a little surprising it took me this long to review just two of his operas. I’m a little worried that the others are probably all downhill from this point!


      5. They are.


      6. Gee, thanks for that vote of confidence! It is odd that Saint-Saens produced Henry VIII, and then wrote ten boring operas before and after. I guess Cilea wrote Adriana Lecouvreur but his other four operas lay dormant, but Saint-Saen’s Samson et Dalila has survived more strongly than Henry VIII, but it really isn’t as good of an opera.


      7. Meanwhile what did you think of Adriana? I mean my review, I already know what you think of the opera. I notice that you always seem a little annoyed at best whenever I bring her up. Like, why does he keep harping on this Cilea riffraff?


      8. Fine, I guess. The opera’s very forgettable, so I don’t have much to say about it.


      9. Although didn’t George Bernard Shaw think Ascanio was completely unoriginal and boring?


      10. Shaw also didn’t like Meyerbeer, and thought that Goetz’s Taming of the Shrew was the best comic opera since Meistersinger.


      11. Wasn’t Goetz’s Taming of the Shrew the ONLY non-Wagner German opera anyone even remotely cares about in the second half of the 19th century prior to Hansel und Gretel though? I mean, take out Wagner and really what is there to the German rep? A bevy of singspiel we would mostly rather forget, and in the 20th century Richard Strauss?

        I mean, there is always Zillig’s Das Opfer!


      12. Gluck, Mozart, Beethoven, Weber, (Marschner, Lortzing), Wagner, Strauss, lots of 20th century composers like Korngold & Krenek


      13. Krenek looks a little like Kurt Weill. I know the others, have you heard Marschner’s Hans Heiling? I liked the spooky opening but I found the rest rather dull. I have thought of listen to Der Tod Stadt because I’ve seen enough movies with Korngold scores!


      14. And there’s Meyerbeer in Die tote Stadt!


      15. Wat! Meyerbeer in the 20th century opera Die tote Stadt. How?!?


      16. There’s a performance of Robert le Diable in it. Marietta dances one of the damned nuns.


      17. I’ve only heard a few (impressive) clips from Hans Heiling.


      18. Okay. I heard the whole thing (or at least a whole two hour recording, how complete it was I don’t know!). I didn’t really like it apart from the spooky opening male chorus in the prologue.


      19. The one Wagner borrowed the Relinquishment motif from?


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