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.

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