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.

Armenian National Opera

Rachmaninov, Aleko

Rachmaninov’s seldom-performed early Aleko has long been on my wish-list of to-see operas.  I did not manage to find a production during my time in Russia, but the Armenian National Opera obliged tonight.

For reasons not apparent, instead of pairing this single-act opera with another one-acter, as might be normal for an opera lasting less than an hour, the Armenian National Opera instead used Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini as an opener.  Other than the fact that both works are by the same composer, I could find little in common between a dark opera written at the start of Rachmaninov’s career and a flashy virtuoso work for piano and orchestra written towards the end of his career.  And this in an opera house.

For the Rhapsody, I could not tell if the opera company had rolled the Steinway over from the Khachaturian Hall (which is only on the other side of the same building as the opera house) or whether the opera has a twin instrument that is equally out-of-tune and sour as the one in the Khachaturian Hall.  Zhora Sargsyan pounded on the keyboard, while the orchestra perfectly matched his instrument’s bitter tone.

The orchestra sounded much better once it sunk it into the pit after the intermission, from where it provided good accompaniment to the singers rather than retaining the focus for itself.  On the podium, Karen Durgaryan kept it in place even if he added nothing in particular to the interpretation.

The opera tells the story of Aleko, a Russian who has sacrificed everything in order to run off with a band of gypsies to be with Zemfira, the gypsy woman he loves.  During the action, he comes to the realization that Zemfira is a fraud, and never loved him.  Enraged, he murders Zemfira’s current gypsy lover and then her.  Zemfira’s father, who had been similarly wronged by Zemfira’s mother but had never done anything about it, casts Aleko out of the gypsy band, cursing him to remain alone forever.

The opera, composed when Rachmaninov was only 19, lacks dramatic development but has much wonderful music.  Baritone Gevorg Hakobyan played an embittered and emotional Aleko.  The supporting characters also delivered strong-voiced performances, particularly Mikayel Hovakimyan and Perch Karazyan as Zemfira’s father and lover respectively.  As Zemfira, Elvira Khachatryan made her stage debut, for which she looked somewhat lost: she over-sang (the manner in which she sang her lullaby for her infant would more likely have kept the kid awake terrified rather than lulled it to sleep), but there was good potential there as her career takes off.

The simple sets were evocative of a rustic gypsy encampment and set a mood which allowed the singers to do their part.  The chorus blended in with the set, never upsetting the main characters (although Rachmaninov’s choral writing had not yet developed; an older Rachmaninov would have given them better material to work with in order to drive the drama forward).  On the other hand, the dancing scene in the gypsy camp, performed by the ballet troupe, gave me more evidence for why I will never attend a full ballet in this town, with their clumsy clomping, tragic tripping, and stationary stumbling.  But while the Armenian National Opera sticks to opera, the performance is more than adequate.  Perhaps not everyone shares that opinion, though, as a surprising number of people seemed to have attended purely for the ballet and walked out of the audience immediately after that scene finished.  Why they’d stay for the uncoordinated prancing and not for the singing must remain a mystery.

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.

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 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.

Armenian National Opera

Verdi, Aida

An unexpectedly good performance of Verdi’Aida at the Armenian National Opera this evening.  Unexpected, I suppose, only because I did not expect anything going in, but came out quite pleased.

The program was only provided in Armenian tonight, and since I cannot even read the alphabet, I do not know who sang except for Amonasro, who received star billing on the English-language website: Zurab Bukhradze from Georgia.  He certainly had the largest voice (and was taller than everyone else in the cast, so literally stood out).  The rest of the cast were not exactly at his level, but all turned in solid performances.  Their voices were generally pleasant, although each of the cast members had dry moments.  The Aida also had a pleasant voice, not dry but with a warble in her upper register when she sang at volume.  Radames was the smallest of the cast members, and had the smallest voice, which did not always project quite as well.

The best performance, though, emerged from the pit.  Eduard Diadura, a guest conductor from Russia, led a very sensible musical production.  On one hand, he knew when to modulate the orchestra in order not to overwhelm the singers, making the orchestra almost unnoticeable to allow the audience to focus on the singing, but on the other he had the orchestra playing very well and providing passion.

The staging generally allowed all of this to happen.  The enormous sandstone sets (or made to look like Egyptian sandstone, but still solid enough to make the motors which move the sets around the stage groan loudly) essentially provided a backdrop, in front of which the cast could act, and it indeed responded with dramatic acting (albeit the director did not think some items through – such as at the very beginning Radames and Aida are still supposed to be hiding their love and not meant – as here – to be openly holding hands in front of Amneris and everyone else).  The costumes looked like Renaissance paintings of the way people in the Middle East were thought to have dressed in the time of Jesus; ancient Egyptians probably did not dress like that.  But the odd costumes were not offensive.  The stage direction could have used more people in the chorus (or at least extras – the chorus actually sounded large enough), since we were left to believe that the Egyptians defeated the Ethiopians with four battalions of six men each, plus a couple of dozen openly homosexual ballet dancers each carrying a phallus (I may not know my ballet very well, but the choreography throughout was so bizarre that the audience kept laughing, which cannot be an endorsement).

I explained last month how the theater itself actually has three stages – the main one in front of the audience, and then smaller ones to the left and right of the audience.  This innovative opera house architecture has potential, and tonight’s stage director made the most of it.  Oddly, he seems to have run out of ideas at the final scene – this last scene would be a perfect opportunity to use one of the side stages as the tomb – it is actually a difficult scene to stage in a normal theater (since not only is a dark tomb supposed to be visible, but Amneris is supposed to be in view outside the tomb).  But the director put this scene entirely on the main stage.  When the curtain opened, Amneris (who had thrown herself to the ground at the end of the previous scene) was in the same place but going up on a riser, while Radames walked down the steps into the tomb underneath.  However, when he sang his lines that the tomb had closed over him, he was standing outside the tomb looking at Amneris.  He then wandered out of the tomb part of the set to the front of the main stage, which itself was too large to be left dark, so the tomb was essentially the whole stage, with Amneris lying on an elevated slab in the back.  When Radames lamented that his strong arms could not move the rock blocking the entrance of the tomb, there was no rock (just a big empty front of the stage).  So I don’t really know what happened to the director’s brain in this scene.

Still, a very enjoyable evening.

Incidentally, regarding my complaints about the opera house building last month, it is still the same on a second look.  However, the deafening heating units in the lobbies are no longer turned on.  And I could also not feel the throbbing disco beat coming mysteriously out of the basement, so I assume I was right that that throbbing was caused by the motors powering the absurd industrial heaters.

Armenian National Opera

Harutiunian, Sayat-Nova

Tried out the Armenian National Opera this evening.

On tap was a new production of Sayat-Nova by Alexander Harutiunian, an opera which originally opened in 1969, ran for several years, and then vanished until now.  A colleague warned me that Harutiunian’s music is ugly, but this opera was still worth hearing for two reasons: first, because I could confirm my colleague’s opinion, and now I will never have to go hear music by Harutiunian again; and second, because my curiosity caused me to do some research into the real-life historical character of Sayat-Nova, upon whom Harutiunian based the opera.

The real Sayat-Nova was an 18th-century poet and composer, ethnic Armenian, born in Tbilisi, who composed mostly in Azeri Turkish written in Georgian script.  Born “Harutyun Sayatyan,” he adopted the name “Sayat-Nova,” meaning “King of Songs” in Persian.

The opera’s composer, Harutiunian, was a Soviet apparatchik (apparently still alive) who did his share of propaganda compositions back in the day.  His music, of which I am told this opera represents a typical example, I just consider dissonant – if I did not hear the instruments tune before each act, then I would swear they forgot to tune.  It was obvious, though, that the instruments were not playing out of tune but rather this was how the music was written.  In this opera, Harutiunian mixed in some actual music by the real Sayat-Nova, and that music – rather than Harutiunian’s own original stuff – was the best part of the opera.  I wish he had used more Sayat-Nova material and less of his own.

This new production was originally planned for 2006, but with cost overruns and political delays took five years to finally come out.  Since I do not read Armenian, I do not know exactly what the problem was that caused the delays – staging was hardly elaborate, and the cast was all local, so nothing jumped out.

The production had no stand-out performances from anyone: a purely adequate cast.

The first act took place in Tbilisi’s Maidan Square – or in this case with a few prop houses made to look like traditional Tbilisi architecture but not really resembling 18th-century Maidani.  Sayat-Nova fell in love with the Georgian princess Anna (in the opera, she was the sister of King Irakli II, although in reality she was his daughter).

The second act took place in what was supposed to be King Irakli’s court, although this was clear only from context and not from the stylized set (consisting of large columns, with the set from the first act still visible as a backdrop).  Princess Anna was engaged to be married, but when Sayat-Nova, now the court composer (in real life he was not only the court composer but also a leading diplomat), was requested by Irakli to serenade the new couple, the love affair between Sayat-Nova and Anna emerged.  In real life, Sayat-Nova was expelled from the court at this point – in the opera version, Anna tried to convince him to accept promotion to nobility in order to be eligible to marry her, but he refused.

By the third act, which would seem to be shortly thereafter in the opera but which actual history would correctly place when Sayat-Nova was 83 years old (the opera skipped quite a bit of his life), Sayat-Nova was living out his life in the seclusion of Haghpat Monastery (located in Armenia near the Georgian border – I have been there, and found one of the chapels to have spectacular acoustics).  Sayat-Nova hallucinated about Anna, whose ghost appeared.  Then the monks ran in to announce that the Persian Shah had burned Tbilisi to the ground and was heading south towards the monastery.  Sayat-Nova’s death was then alluded to (in reality, he was indeed killed by the army of the Shah of Persia, who sacked the monastery after destroying Tbilisi in 1795 – the real-life Shah was angry, because Tbilisi’s famous sulfur baths did not cure the fact that he was a eunuch).  The staging for the third act was peculiar – meant to look like a disemboweled monastery, with Sayat-Nova dressed in monks’ robes which appeared to be made out of shiny black rubber for some reason (the other monks were wearing something closer to normal robes).  Conceptually, the third act staging had no obvious stylistic relationship with the first two acts.

The whole opera was pretty simple, and the staging was simple, so I have no idea why the production was five years late.  Nothing at all special.

The opera house itself is a curious building.  It actually shares a physical concrete structure with the concert hall – an enormous round Soviet building with one entrance on each side, respectively for the concert hall and opera house.  Both halls are horribly Soviet, but the opera side seems more so.  I was wondering why few people got up during the intermission to walk around the lobbies, but when I did so the reason became obvious.  More than half the chandeliers in the lobby and corridors were turned off, giving it a gloomy feel.  Smoking is permitted.  The heating system sounds like an industrial-strength vacuum cleaner.  And somewhere, although walking around I could not tell from where, something was causing the lobby area to shake like the entrance to a discotheque with throbbing, pulsating bass (I’m not really sure that is what I heard, but it certainly felt that way – I just could not locate the origin of the throbbing beat).  When I left the building, the pulsating sounds were not audible outside, so I imagine it must have been coming from somewhere inside the building, or maybe it was the machine in the basement keeping the industrial heaters going.  In this sense, it reminded me of the much-praised but probably over-rated Kimmel Center in Philadelphia, which has a nightclub in its lobby which pounds out music that is extremely disconcerting when leaving the concert hall, although the Kimmel Center disco is worse and completely inappropriate where it is (the least they could have done in Philadelphia would have been to enclose it and sound-proof it, since the Kimmel Center is supposed to primarily be a concert hall).  At least in the Kimmel Center, though, the source of the throbbing is readily identifiable.

The stage inside the theater was also unusual, in that it was actually three stages forming a triptych.  The main stage was where I would expect it – directly in front of the audience –  but there were two smaller stages angled to the left and right of the audience.  During the first act, all three curtains opened together, so we got surrounded by what was supposed to be downtown Tbilisi in the mid-1700s.  It was actually sensory overkill.  For later acts, some brief small scenes appeared on one of the side stages (allowing the main stage to remain but letting the characters retire to another room, for example).  This is how the theater is actually constructed, so not a ploy for this particular production.  Very peculiar.