Harutiunian, Sayat-Nova

Tried out the Armenian National Opera this evening.

On tap was a new production of Sayat-Nova by Alexander Harutiunian, an opera which originally opened in 1969, ran for several years, and then vanished until now.  A colleague warned me that Harutiunian’s music is ugly, but this opera was still worth hearing for two reasons: first, because I could confirm my colleague’s opinion, and now I will never have to go hear music by Harutiunian again; and second, because my curiosity caused me to do some research into the real-life historical character of Sayat-Nova, upon whom Harutiunian based the opera.

The real Sayat-Nova was an 18th-century poet and composer, ethnic Armenian, born in Tbilisi, who composed mostly in Azeri Turkish written in Georgian script.  Born “Harutyun Sayatyan,” he adopted the name “Sayat-Nova,” meaning “King of Songs” in Persian.

The opera’s composer, Harutiunian, was a Soviet apparatchik (apparently still alive) who did his share of propaganda compositions back in the day.  His music, of which I am told this opera represents a typical example, I just consider dissonant – if I did not hear the instruments tune before each act, then I would swear they forgot to tune.  It was obvious, though, that the instruments were not playing out of tune but rather this was how the music was written.  In this opera, Harutiunian mixed in some actual music by the real Sayat-Nova, and that music – rather than Harutiunian’s own original stuff – was the best part of the opera.  I wish he had used more Sayat-Nova material and less of his own.

This new production was originally planned for 2006, but with cost overruns and political delays took five years to finally come out.  Since I do not read Armenian, I do not know exactly what the problem was that caused the delays – staging was hardly elaborate, and the cast was all local, so nothing jumped out.

The production had no stand-out performances from anyone: a purely adequate cast.

The first act took place in Tbilisi’s Maidan Square – or in this case with a few prop houses made to look like traditional Tbilisi architecture but not really resembling 18th-century Maidani.  Sayat-Nova fell in love with the Georgian princess Anna (in the opera, she was the sister of King Irakli II, although in reality she was his daughter).

The second act took place in what was supposed to be King Irakli’s court, although this was clear only from context and not from the stylized set (consisting of large columns, with the set from the first act still visible as a backdrop).  Princess Anna was engaged to be married, but when Sayat-Nova, now the court composer (in real life he was not only the court composer but also a leading diplomat), was requested by Irakli to serenade the new couple, the love affair between Sayat-Nova and Anna emerged.  In real life, Sayat-Nova was expelled from the court at this point – in the opera version, Anna tried to convince him to accept promotion to nobility in order to be eligible to marry her, but he refused.

By the third act, which would seem to be shortly thereafter in the opera but which actual history would correctly place when Sayat-Nova was 83 years old (the opera skipped quite a bit of his life), Sayat-Nova was living out his life in the seclusion of Haghpat Monastery (located in Armenia near the Georgian border – I have been there, and found one of the chapels to have spectacular acoustics).  Sayat-Nova hallucinated about Anna, whose ghost appeared.  Then the monks ran in to announce that the Persian Shah had burned Tbilisi to the ground and was heading south towards the monastery.  Sayat-Nova’s death was then alluded to (in reality, he was indeed killed by the army of the Shah of Persia, who sacked the monastery after destroying Tbilisi in 1795 – the real-life Shah was angry, because Tbilisi’s famous sulfur baths did not cure the fact that he was a eunuch).  The staging for the third act was peculiar – meant to look like a disemboweled monastery, with Sayat-Nova dressed in monks’ robes which appeared to be made out of shiny black rubber for some reason (the other monks were wearing something closer to normal robes).  Conceptually, the third act staging had no obvious stylistic relationship with the first two acts.

The whole opera was pretty simple, and the staging was simple, so I have no idea why the production was five years late.  Nothing at all special.

The opera house itself is a curious building.  It actually shares a physical concrete structure with the concert hall – an enormous round Soviet building with one entrance on each side, respectively for the concert hall and opera house.  Both halls are horribly Soviet, but the opera side seems more so.  I was wondering why few people got up during the intermission to walk around the lobbies, but when I did so the reason became obvious.  More than half the chandeliers in the lobby and corridors were turned off, giving it a gloomy feel.  Smoking is permitted.  The heating system sounds like an industrial-strength vacuum cleaner.  And somewhere, although walking around I could not tell from where, something was causing the lobby area to shake like the entrance to a discotheque with throbbing, pulsating bass (I’m not really sure that is what I heard, but it certainly felt that way – I just could not locate the origin of the throbbing beat).  When I left the building, the pulsating sounds were not audible outside, so I imagine it must have been coming from somewhere inside the building, or maybe it was the machine in the basement keeping the industrial heaters going.  In this sense, it reminded me of the much-praised but probably over-rated Kimmel Center in Philadelphia, which has a nightclub in its lobby which pounds out music that is extremely disconcerting when leaving the concert hall, although the Kimmel Center disco is worse and completely inappropriate where it is (the least they could have done in Philadelphia would have been to enclose it and sound-proof it, since the Kimmel Center is supposed to primarily be a concert hall).  At least in the Kimmel Center, though, the source of the throbbing is readily identifiable.

The stage inside the theater was also unusual, in that it was actually three stages forming a triptych.  The main stage was where I would expect it – directly in front of the audience –  but there were two smaller stages angled to the left and right of the audience.  During the first act, all three curtains opened together, so we got surrounded by what was supposed to be downtown Tbilisi in the mid-1700s.  It was actually sensory overkill.  For later acts, some brief small scenes appeared on one of the side stages (allowing the main stage to remain but letting the characters retire to another room, for example).  This is how the theater is actually constructed, so not a ploy for this particular production.  Very peculiar.

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