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.