The story of Henry VIII
- Reading time
- 5 min.
The king’s desire. The dangers of the court. Anne Boleyn’s ambition. The distress of Catherine of Aragon. The Pope’s warnings. Incriminating letters … It's the perfect material for a French grand opéra. Read the full synopsis of Henry VIII here, along with a selection of the opera’s musical highlights.
London, 1533. A toxic mix of danger and suspicion fills the corridors of Henry VIII’s palace. The Duke of Buckingham, once a close friend of the king, has just been sentenced to death. Don Gomez is in a different mood: he is celebrating his appointment as the new Spanish ambassador in England, an honour he owes in part to his mistress, Anne Boleyn, who put in a good word for him with Henry's Spanish queen Catharine of Aragon. There are, however, rumours going around to the effect that the king himself has set his eyes on Anne. Some even whisper that he intends to marry her... But that would mean he first needs to annul his current marriage, something he can only do with the personal approval of the Pope.
Sensing that her union with the king is at risk, the queen asks Henry to spare Buckingham. In vain. Her husband remains inflexible and instead introduces her to her new lady-in-waiting: Anne. The king is burning with desire for this young woman and makes her Marquess of Pembroke. Unsettled, Anne is seized by a terrifying vision: a bloody axe coming down on her. Don Gomez is suspicious of Henry’s desire and fears the effect his favours will have on his mistress’s affections …
A little later, in the gardens of Richmond Palace. Festivities are being prepared in honour of Anne Boleyn, who has come to the palace with the king while the queen is still in London. Don Gomez is also present and he reproaches Anne for neglecting their relationship. Worried, the young woman seeks to convince him of the opposite when Henry interrupts them. Left alone with her, the king tries to win Anne’s love, but she refuses to become his mistress. When he promises to break off his marriage to Catherine, she agrees to marry him.
Anne is thrilled by her advancement, but her enthusiasm is tempered by the arrival of Catherine, who rebukes her for her ambition. Surprised by the queen’s presence, Henry makes her understand that she will not be his wife for much longer. To complicate matters, the papal legate joins the assembly. Anne’s triumph and the dissolution of Henry and Catherine’s marriage seem inevitable. However, the start of the festivities leaves the situation unresolved.
Back at the king’s palace, the representative of Rome waits to be received. Henry fulminates against the Pope’s authority before expressing once again his fervent passion for Anne. She begs him to abandon his plan all the while reaffirming her love for him. Henry suspects that this change of heart hides another love.
Finally, the king receives the papal legate. The meeting quickly turns sour. Henry reproaches the representative of Rome for ignoring his orders. His interlocutor insists that it is the king’s duty as a Christian to renounce the divorce. Henry decides to leave the decision to the people. Unconcerned about the schism he risks provoking with the Church, Henry leaves the room. Left alone, the legate worries about how things will turn out and begs for God’s mercy.
Later, in Parliament, Henry officially requests an annulment of his marriage to Catherine. She begs him to respect their union. Don Gomez intercedes on the Queen’s behalf, stressing her fear of a possible war if the King’s wish is granted. Henry vehemently reprimands the young ambassador and rallies the assembly to his cause. The papal legate decrees that he annuls any decision contrary to the king’s first marriage. The king lets the people in, who euphorically pledge to follow the sovereign in a new Church. Henry announces his union with Anne Boleyn and is excommunicated.
Sometime after the wedding of Anne and Henry, the new queen is worried about her husband’s bad mood. Don Gomez arrives with a message from Catherine for the king. Anne fears that her former lover is seeking revenge by handing over their love letters to Henry. The Spanish ambassador assures her that he has burned the letters, except for the one in which Anne had asked for her appointment to Catherine of Aragon. Henry surprises them and asks his wife, who is hiding her panic, to leave him alone with Don Gomez. The king wants to question the one he suspects of being his rival in Anne’s heart. The ambassador gives him the sad message from Catherine. The king decides to see her again and invites Don Gomez to follow him.
In her retreat at Kimbolton Castle, Catherine of Aragon hears the people celebrating the king’s birthday. Sensing her death approach, she leaves her prayer book to Don Gomez, a prayer book in which she slips the compromising letter sent by Anne Boleyn.
Anne bursts in to beg her forgiveness. Catherine reproaches her for never having loved Don Gomez. Anne defends herself by suggesting that Catherine has a letter proving the contrary. Realising that the visit is a ploy to get the letter back, she declares her intention to give it to the king. Henry arrives at that very moment, confident that he can extract evidence of his new wife’s duplicity from Catherine, who claims she never loved anyone but him. Jealous and weakened, Catherine almost gives in but ends up throwing the letter into the fireplace before she dies. Enraged, Henry threatens to take an axe to all those who have betrayed him.