Armenian National Opera

Verdi, La Traviata

Verdi’La Traviata tonight at the Armenian National Opera featured as Violetta Valéry soprano Anahit Mekhtaryan, who seems to be a bit of a celebrity here.  Her delicate voice matched the role well, on one hand, but proved big enough to fill the large hall on the other.  The upper registers tended sharp, especially at bigger volumes, but overall she was quite good.

As Alfredo Germont, Hovhannes Ayvazyan matched her well, although his voice sounded a tad tinny.  Arnold Kocharyan performed the role of Giorgio Germont as a sympathetic figure, rather than the necessary bad guy in many portrayals.  He was a character of his time, and meant well, but ultimately showed a human side and felt responsible for Violetta’s downfall (although her illness predated the events).

Staging was mostly traditional, except for some odd stone structures on the back wall.  Two stone figures appeared to be the couple from Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss.  Each scene, they moved further apart from each other.  Other rock figures moving around were a devil’s face (I presume), and a lot of detached hands, not to mention two stone columns which melted onto the floor during the final act.  Although weird, the back wall could be safely ignored.

The orchestra sounded quite good, under the able baton of Karen Durgaryan.  Unfortunately, as I have noted before, the huge concrete block that is the opera and concert house is poorly insulated from the outside, so noise leaks in.  This evening, a rock concert was scheduled for a square in front of the opera side of the building, and the floor throbbed with unwanted bass.  During the final act, as Violeta prepared to die, an unfortunately-timed and very audible fireworks display began in the square.  It seems odd that they could not have been bothered to wait ten minutes.

Armenian Philharmonic, Khachaturian Hall

Verdi, Wagner

For the closing concert of the Armenian Philharmonic’s 2012-13 season, the orchestra honored the 200th anniversary year of the births of Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner, with a concert of selections (a “Gala,” as they refer to such concerts in the former Soviet space).  Hasmik Papian performed the soprano solos, and Eduard Topchjan conducted.

Papian, born in Yerevan but based in Vienna, has apparently made quite a career singing Verdi, and similar, heroines with her expressive large voice.  Although we only had arias, she clearly knew she had taken the stage and assumed the roles.  Verdi filled the program before the intermission (she sang arias from BalloDon Carlo, and Forza).  But she has recently added Wagner to her repertory, and we got that after the intermission.  Her voice certainly handled Senta in the 2nd Act ballad from Holländer and Elisabeth’s “Dich teure Halle” from Tannhäuser (that particular aria coming across in with a poignant twinkle, since she clearly showed she had made a triumphant return to her hometown’s large concert hall, where she got her professional start in the opera house on the back side of the same building).  When it came to Isolde’s Liebestod from Tristan, however, her voice may not yet have filled that role, especially if she had to sing for hours beforehand, but she made an excellent case as an Isolde for the not distant future.  For an encore, she treated the house to a rousing “Ritorna vincitor!” from Verdi’s Aida.  In this case, she herself had returned home triumphant.  The audience roared.

Papian aside, any concert with Topchjan conducting is worth going to.  In addition to the arias, the program also contained a selection of overtures.  The orchestra gave suitably spirited renditions of the overtures to Vespri Siciliani and Forza del Destino, which not only showed off some powerful chorales but also delicate solo work on the middle strings and winds.  I do not know how often Topchjan gets to conduct opera, but he certainly can convey a sense of the dramatic in the overtures.  The question on this hot night, though, was whether the orchestra would whither after intermission when the Verdi gave way to Wagner.  The Prelude to Lohengrin that opened the second half of the concert answered the question: the orchestra sounded even warmer and more lush.  But whereas it handled bits of Lohengrin, Holländer, and Tannhäuser, the next question was whether the Prelude from Tristan might not prove its undoing.  Yet here Topchjan had the orchestra sounding its best, effortlessly navigating the chromatics while keeping the full tone – another question with a good answer.  The thing is, this orchestra still has flaws, but when Topchjan conducts they sound completely different.

I hope they sound this good next season.

Armenian Philharmonic, Khachaturian Hall

Grieg, Bruckner

Last week, the Armenian Philharmonic canceled a concert when soloist Shlomo Mintz got sick.  Although I was looking forward to hear Mintz perform live, I think I was more disappointed in the end that I would not get to hear Eduard Topchjan and the Armenian Philharmonic perform Bruckner’s 9th Symphony, after having been surprisingly overwhelmed by these forces combining on Bruckner’s 4th in February.

So, to my delight, posters went up around town yesterday advertising a late addition to the concert schedule: a performance tonight, with the Grieg Piano Concerto and… Bruckner’s 9th.  As soon as I saw a poster, I ran as fast as I could to the box office and got a ticket.

I do not understand how they do it.  Bruckner cannot be a staple part of their repertory.  A functional but not great orchestra normally would not get this right.  But obviously God himself, captured in Bruckner’s music, has entered their skins and produced yet another tear-inducing performance.  The fact that the orchestra is flawed (strings were shrill, winds missed their attacks) actually made the performance more moving.  This is far from a perfect orchestra, and Bruckner was a very humble man, who saw himself as an imperfect servant of the Almighty.

Topchjan clearly had the orchestra well rehearsed.  They took a slow tempo, probably deliberately careful because the work was unfamiliar, but a slow tempo works for Bruckner.  They played the music as they found it, simply, honestly, and passionately.  The first movement built a wonderous tower, the scherzo bit the heart, and the adagio left the earth and climbed to heaven.  The acoustics in the Khachaturian Hall – not a huge hall, but very tall – took the sound right up to the high ceiling and brought it back to earth transformed and transformative.  Bruckner did not live long enough to complete this symphony, and left three movements behind as his testament, dedicated to none other than “the dear God.”  I think the orchestra even managed to play the dedication tonight.

I have heard better orchestras perform this work, including in 2013 already.  But did they really understand it so well as these Armenians?  I do not cry often at concerts.  I don’t give too many standing ovations either.  Topchjan and the Armenian Philharmonic provoked both for the second time this year, both times after performing Bruckner symphonies.

The concert opened with the Grieg Piano Concerto.  This was workmanlike.  Topchjan does make this orchestra sound better than anyone else, so he could keep the performance lively, flowing, and full of exciting dynamic swells.  Tigran Alaverdyan, the soloist, made playing the piano look effortless (I had an excellent view of his fingers).  Unfortunately, the Khachaturian Hall’s Steinway piano is not so good – something I’ve noticed before – and sounded rather tinny.  This was a piano to use to accompany someone, not to use as a solo instrument.

Armenian National Opera

Spendiarian, Almast

Armenians consider Alexander Spendiarian the father of Armenian classical music.  A pupil of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov in St. Petersburg, Spendiarian collected Armenian folk songs and melded them into the classical tradition.  He wrote only one opera, Almast, which the Armenian National Opera performed this evening.  Of course, I went.

I am not quite sure what I saw.  I searched unsuccessfully this week to find a plot summary on line, and then figured the program might include one in English (not an unreasonable assumption from my experiences), but the program was entirely in Armenian.  The action (or often lack of action) on stage did not adequately convey much without understanding the words.  For an opera in which every main character was brutally murdered on stage, nothing really happened at all.  All I know is that the story is loosely based on a historical event from the 18th Century, in which an Armenian princess betrayed her husband’s fortress to the Persian Shah’s army, thinking this would make the Shah marry her and she could become Queen of Persia.  However the Shah merely stuck her in his harem.  When she then tried to kill the Shah, he had her executed.  I suppose I may have seen something like that.

The cast and the orchestra, under the baton of Yuri Davtyan, were not bad.  The staging presumably adequately conveyed the plot – I certainly do not blame the director for my lack of understanding.  Spendiarian’s music was also not bad, but lacked the palette and the drama of his old teacher Rimsky-Korsakov.  Spendiarian was a contemporary of Zakaria Paliashvili, considered the father of Georgian classical music for the same reasons Spendiarian has the Armenian title, but Paliashvili had both a better mastery of color and, in Georgia’s ancient musical traditions, far more and far better source material to work from (and Sergei Taneyev was probably a better teacher than Rimsky-Korsakov as well).  So on that comparison Spendiarian fails.

However, for a night out at the opera to experience something new, this succeeded.  Unfortunately, the audience remained restless throughout, with many people not bothering to break off their conversations (or even pretend to whisper).  Clearly the audience did not care much for this work, and even lacked the curiosity I had.  In the end, these chatterboxes gave the performance a standing ovation.  That was most certainly unearned, but the audience had not been listening so presumably thought that a standing ovation makes up for the disrespect they showed the rest of the evening.  But the opera was worth the hearing, and the performance (through the chatter) was perfectly acceptable.