Armenian Philharmonic, Khachaturian Hall

Verdi, Wagner, Bellini, Glinka, Rachmaninov, Rubinstein, Bizet, Khachaturian, Pakhmutova, Dunayevsky, Babzhanian, Orbelian

Tonight’s concert by baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky and the Armenian Philharmonic was peculiar long before it started.  Ostensibly part of the annual Yerevan Perspectives Music Festival, it appeared neither on the Festival’s published program nor on the Armenian Philharmonic’s schedule.  But when posters went up around town, tickets sold out.  Only cheap seats were available when I got to the box office, and in retrospect that was a good thing because this concert was not worth more than a 10-dollar ticket.  After the concert sold out (or over-sold out, since some people were literally sitting on every available stair in the aisles and standing to fill every other empty space), black market tickets were going for well above face value.

A list of composers was published on the concert flier, so presumably they knew what they were performing in advance.  But to tell us what was being performed, they hired a master of ceremonies.  Sometimes he was too slow to announce the next selection.  Sometimes Hvorostovsky beat him too it.  Sometimes we just had to guess.  A program would have been a nicer idea.

The first half of the program contained a mix of arias and orchestral overtures.  Hvorostovsky is clearly more comfortable in the Russian repertory, and Aleko’s lament from Rachmaninov’Aleko and an aria from Rubinstein’s Demon remain signature works, combining loving sensitivity with drama.  His singing style may be less suited for German and Italian repertory, at least for tonight’s selections, since his voice can sound somewhat bitter and not subtle in those languages, and this undermined the portrayal in Wolfram’s Ode to the Evening Star from Wagner’Tannhäuser and in another aria that sounded (I’ll guess) like it came from Bellini’Puritani.  It worked better for Escamillo’s bullfighting aria from Bizet’Carmen, as Hvorostovsky ostentatiously made his appearance in the middle of the orchestral introduction, and then gave a swashbuckling portrayal quite appropriate for the scene (this may also have worked better since French is already an ugly enough language, and a biting Russian baritone will not make that worse).

The orchestra mostly kept pace, under the baton of the Armenian-American conductor Constantine Orbelian, but Orbelian does not have the same control that the orchestra’s music director Eduard Topchjan has.  Topchjan is perhaps the only one to make this orchestra sound good.  Tonight, they reverted down several levels, missing notes and entrances, and failing to allow natural phrasing in the music to flow, making the performance somewhat disjointed.  When Hvorostovsky sang, they thankfully stayed in the background (with some glaring exceptions).  When performing the overtures to Verdi’NabuccoGlinka’s  Ruslan i Lyudmila, Bizet’s Carmen, they just served to keep the audience entertained while Hvorostovsky took a breather.  Likewise for a Khachaturian dance in the concert’s second half.

When I worked in Russia, someone told me that someone famous (unfortunately, I forget who) once quipped that if the Russians have ever done anything cultured, they learned it from the Jews, the Armenians, or the Georgians.  The second half of the concert seemed designed to prove that no matter how well they have been trained, Russians remain tasteless underneath.  I suppose Hvorostovsky selects his own programs, so I will blame him.  His selections in the second half converted the hall into a Russian nightclub, but with the accompaniment scored for full orchestra to ensure it could become as tacky as possible.  He sang a string of Russian-language songs by Russian and Armenian composers (according to the flier: Pakhmutova, Dunayevsky, Babzhanian, and Konstanin Orbelian – the last being the uncle of the conductor and who came on stage personally to accompany Hvorostovsky and the orchestra on a miked piano, and whose music is as cheesy as it was when I last suffered through it in 2011).  Hvorostovsky used a microphone for these songs (he correctly did not use one in the first half of the program).  Why someone with his voice needed amplification is a mystery, but it just made the sound more seedy and defeated the point of paying to hear him sing live.  His gold chain glittered under his half-unbuttoned shiny black shirt.

Audience reaction was mixed.  Some – presumably the Russified Armenians, of whom there are far too many – clearly loved it and applauded madly.  But a sizable minority had expressions of disgust on their faces similar to mine.  After politely sitting through the scheduled part of the concert, and sitting on our hands during the applause, we waited to see what Hvorostovsky would do for encores.  He began with two differently-scored versions of the Russian nightclub favorite “Dark Eyes.”  When it became clear that the encores would continue in the same manner, lots of us got up and walked out.

Armenian National Opera

Tigranian, Anush

Each time I see an Armenian opera and leave disappointed, my Armenian friends keep telling me to wait until I hear Anush, by Armen Tigranian.  I have missed it by a few days several times, but tonight it was staged at the Armenian National Opera while I was actually in Yerevan.  Unfortunately, once again I left disappointed.  My friends completely over-hyped this opera.  Indeed, it was prettier than any other Armenian opera I have attended.  But it was also just as dull.

Composed in 1912, the opera used Armenian folk music and stories as inspiration.  Set in northern Armenia, it tells the tale of Anush, a peasant girl, caught up in a traditional feud.  Her betrothed, Saro, accidentally insults the honor of her brother, Mosi.  As a result, Mosi hunts down Saro and kills him.  Anush, mad with grief, climbs a mountain and throws herself into the Debed River Gorge.

The costumes tonight were traditional, and the simple set evocative.  Blocking was generally blockish.  And instead of throwing herself into the Gorge at the final curtain, Anush oddly wrapped herself in ivy.  But the staging, although it could have shown more development, was not the problem.

The choral passages were also not the problem.  Lush harmonies stood out as absolutely the musical highlights of the evening – those sections I would gladly hear again.  The problem came that Tigranian’s writing for solo voice or duets did not cut it, dragging on too long and constantly losing flow.  Soprano Anahit Mekhitaryan, whom I heard in Traviata in July, starred in the title role, with her appropriately delicate-sounding voice rising anything but delicately to fill the hall with a pure sound.  Her tenor counterpart, Sargis Aghmalyanperforming as Saro, did not match her.  His voice sounded tired right from the first note.  His acting also looked tired.  However, Baritone Gevorg Hakobyan, as Mosi, did inject drama and passion into an otherwise dull evening, and his duets with Mekhitaryan, though just as boring musically, at least allowed two well-matched and intelligent voices to try to keep the plot moving.

Conductor Karen Durgaryan seemed unable to keep everything together.  Orchestra, cast, and chorus were not always in time.  The uninspiring music dragged maybe more than it should have.  The ballet had no spring.  The folk dances had no lilt.  Even Anush’s never-ending final monologue almost made me want to go on stage and shove her off the cliff myself to get it over with.

To be fair, some of the problems with this opera may have come from external distractions, which ruined the entire atmosphere.  Although the orchestra sat in the pit on time and the show looked ready to start, the curtain took literally 45 minutes to go up.  Why?  The audience kept breaking into applause to try to force the conductor to come out and the opera to begin.  After the opera finally did begin, the audience lost interest and would not shut up all night.  During the second and third acts, it sounded like someone decided it was time to vacuum back stage on stage left, which could only have distracted the performers as much as it distracted me.  At one point I was sure I heard someone sweeping out the loge boxes with a whisk broom.  At other times, it sounded like someone had airlifted themselves onto the building’s roof and started running around.  I don’t know if the opera would have been better without these distractions, but somehow I think they provided more excitement than the music.

Maybe I need to stick to Georgian opera.


Bizet, Carmen

I opened my 2013-14 (or maybe 5774) music season tonight with Bizet’s Carmen at the Staatsoper.

The Staatsoper dusted off a 1978 production by Franco Zeffirelli, which ensured the staging matched the plot at least.  The large sets, painted to look even larger, produced a traditional reading, but also had some little touches.  One came when José and Carmen saw each other for the first time: everyone else on stage froze in whatever position they happened to be in, and only the two main protagonists moved, as the music amplified their clear passion.  As an example of Carmen’s rough and hot personality, when she danced for José in the tavern in Act Two, lacking castanets she smashed a plate left on a table, and used the shards to click the beats.  These little touches added to the drama.  Unfortunately, in the end, the production at the big-picture level remained somewhat cluttered, with superfluous action by extras leading to distraction.

The Philadelphia-trained Israeli mezzo Rinat Shaham headed the cast, with a sultry Carmen.  Roberto Alagna, as Don José, overwhelmed her however, with a more secure stage presence and and fuller expressive voice.  Something about the chemistry between these two lacked, and Alagna had much better chemistry with the Romanian Anita Hartig, who sang the smaller role of Micaela with such controlled drama that she became the most sympathetic character (and characterization) on the stage.  The audience showered her with approval during the final curtain call, and the swell of the applause clearly took her by surprise judging by her facial expression.  She deserved it.  Just one more reason José should have married her and not gotten mixed up with Carmen.

The rest of the cast, in various supporting roles, kept up the basic required standard.  The orchestra sounded terrific in the pit, led with a beaming smile by Israeli conductor Dan Ettinger.

After seeing the level of dress in the audiences deteriorate over the years, tonight marked a pleasant exception.  Even though this was not a gala evening nor a special event, I saw a number of men in black tie (something I have not seen for years), including a little boy in my loge.  Women wore proper gowns.  While there was not as much Austrian Tracht as I like, I was far from the only one taking that option.  Even the tieless tourists looked neat and clean.  Sad that when an audience dresses for the opera it is so noticeable for being so unusual these days.