Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra (Moscow Radio), Royal Festival Hall (London)

Tschaikowsky, Schostakowitsch, Elgar

I popped down to London to hear the Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra under Vladimir Fedoseyev perform in the Royal Festival Hall.  With this team, it is always a treat.  Fedoseyev has led the orchestra for forty years as of this year, so it is very much his instrument.

The instrument that opened the concert, though, belonged to violinist Vadim Repin.  Repin does not have a big tone, but he does have a beautiful one.  Fedoseyev had the orchestra provide him appropriately delicate backing in the Tschaikowsky Violin Concerto, not too robust as to overwhelm him.  Fedoseyev painted an overall picture using pastels rather than bold colors, colorful yet restrained.  Tschaikowsky might have appreciated more energy, however.

Where the Tschaikowsky Violin Concerto was light and sweet, the Schostakowitsch Symphony #8 after the intermission was dark and bitter.  I heard this symphony with the Tonkünstler a month ago, but it forms a more usual part of this orchestra’s repertory, and they knew how to dig into the soul.  The solo lines scattered among the industrialized music representing the faceless Soviet regime soared with great beauty.  Around them sounded devastation, Russia in rubble and its people under oppression.

The concert promoted the opening of the 2014 UK-Russia Year of Culture, so the orchestra knew it had to warm the home crowd with some Elgar encores.  A strongly sentimental Nimrod from the Enigma Variations showed they could communicate the message.  The Pomp and Circumstance March #1 which concluded the set came across as a tad regimented and less academic, but nevertheless roused the crowd.  In between came a encore I did not recognize, which sounded like someone’s quite fun attempt at imitating Spanish music.  The audience reacted delightedly to the encores – I am not sure they understood the Russian works, however.

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Armenian Philharmonic, Khachaturian Hall

Puccini

After needing to get an usher to eject someone from my seat, I enjoyed my second concert performance of Puccini’Tosca in two months, tonight with the Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra under Eduard Topchjan.

Hasmik Papian (the Vienna-based soprano I have only heard in Yerevan) headed the billing as Floria Tosca, providing a solid strong-willed heroine, who dropped into a delicate “Vissi d’arte” aria when at her most vulnerable moment.  She showed a clear chemistry with the two male leads, Hovhannes Ayvazyan as Mario Cavardossi and David Babayants as Baron Scarpia.  Both of them demonstrated tremendous expression in their voices, even if those voices did not display the same size as Papian’s.  Nevertheless, when it mattered during the second act Tosca-Scarpia duet and the third act Tosca-Cavaradossi duet, the combination excelled.

Maestro Topchjan kept everything together and well-paced, as usual, on the podium.  The orchestra did not sound big in the first act, but it grew throughout, without overwhelming the singers (as can happen in a concert performance).  By Yerevan standards, this was worth a strong ovation, with Topchjan the evening’s true catalyst.

As for my seat, I actually felt sorry for the older couple (the husband was in my seat, so he got ejected), but I did pay for my ticket in a full house, and their tickets were obviously fake (two seat numbers written by hand on a concert flier – someone must have sold this fraudulent paper to a poor unsuspecting older couple, all elegantly dressed up for a night of culture).  The wife gave me nasty looks for a while, but eventually settled down (she tried to make small talk, but we have no common language although neither of us thought to try Russian).  Her husband wandered around and seems to have found some empty seat somewhere else (the usher threw him out of the seat, not out of the hall).  The next two seats between her and the aisle were reserved for the Italian ambassador and his interpreter, making an obligatory appearance at an Italian opera (he went on stage before it began to thank Topchjan and the Armenian Philharmonic for programming Italian opera), although he seems to know little about opera since he had his interpreter lean over to me after the second act to ask me (in Armenian! I don’t know if she spoke English, so once I figured out what she wanted I answered in Italian) if it was over and time to go.  He seemed slightly disappointed he had to sit politely through another act.

Armenian National Opera

Chukhajian, Arshak II

I may have been one of the few people at the Armenian National Opera tonight who actually wanted to hear the obscure 19th-century Armenian opera Arshak II by Tigran Chukhajian.  Most of the other audience members never bothered to interrupt their conversations long enough to listen (amazingly, I did not hear any mobile phones ring, so at least there was that positive development; on the other hand, some obsessive photographer sat near me with an old camera that had a very loud shutter, and he snapped several hundred photos all night).

Through the chatter, the music sounded like reworked Verdi.  The music was indeed quite pretty, seemingly influenced by Verdi’s Don Carlos (which had its premiere a year before Chukhajian wrote Arshak II), as well as a bit of Rigoletto and Nabucco.  Whether it had the same drama was hard to tell, because I do not speak Armenian and the opera company made no effort to provide plot synopses in any other language.  Davit Babayants starred adequately in the title role, other singers sang their parts with no particularly special (nor poor) distinction, and Karen Lavchyan kept the beat in the pit.  The orchestra usually played in time.  In all, these were inauspicious conditions in which to judge the quality of the work.

My research beforehand turned up more about the history of the opera than about its plot.  Chukhajian (an Armenian from Constantinople) wrote the opera in 1868 in Italian, hoping that using the Italian language would improve its chances of getting performed (his Armenian librettist also did an Armenian-language translation, which is what we heard tonight).  However, only short excerpts were performed in Chukhajian’s lifetime and the score went missing until the 1930s.  Slated for a premiere at the Bolshoi in Moscow, the Russians decided that the character of Arshak II was uncomfortably similar in ruthlessness to Stalin, so some Soviet hacks were assigned to write a completely new plot and an extra hour of new music, and then to pretend it was Chukhajian’s opera.  In the 1990s, someone finally had the good sense to put everything back as it was originally (although using the alternative Armenian libretto rather than the Italian one), and it received its world premiere at the San Francisco Opera of all places in 2001.

The opera’s central character is the historic figure Arshak II, a fourth-century Armenian king who had united a good amount of territory under his rule (his kingdom extended from the Caspian Sea almost all the way to both the Black and Mediterranean Seas).  As far as I could tell, the plot concerns a number of court intrigues, in which King Arshak orders the murders of many of his scheming aristocrats.  Arshak meanwhile appears to have an affair with a woman right in front of the Queen, and after making her watch he summarily has the Queen taken off by armed thugs.  Later, it seems the the Queen has not been killed, but continues to be happily married to Arshak.  Some aristocrat tries to poison Arshak, but the Queen drinks the poison instead, which makes Arshak angry.  He has the aristocrat murdered, and then mourns his wife for a few bars of music before marrying his mistress amongst great public rejoicing.  At least that is my best guess.

Update, 20 March: Decided to try attending Chukhajian’s Arshak II again, in the hope that the audience might shut up and let me hear it.  Very small turnout in the audience indeed meant much less talking.  The verdict: quite a nice opera.  It indeed showed an influence from Verdi.  I am still not clear on the plot, beyond what I guessed before, since they once again made no effort to provide any information in languages other than Armenian and I still cannot find any summary on line.  Davit Babayants once again sang the title role, this time somewhat more aggressively than before (or maybe I could just hear him better with less chatter in the audience).  I have no idea which character went with which name, so cannot identify the rest of the cast, but they were generally good as well.  Karen Lavchyan kept the beat going this time too.