Musicians of the Armenian National Opera Orchestra, Yerevan Opera Foyer


I try to keep an eye out for unusual concerts.  The Armenian National Opera has begun an intermittent series of chamber concerts in a renovated foyer by the stage entrance of the opera house, which seats about 50-60 people.  Tonight’s concert featured the music of one Soghomon Gevorgi Soghomonyan, a composer-priest who after ordination used the name “Komitas” after a seventh-century Armenian Katholikos who had written many Armenian hymns.

Father Komitas was the foremost Armenian composer of the late ninetheenth and early twentieth centuries and was known across Europe.  His musical style – for both liturgical and secular works – combined eastern harmonies with western forms, including some quite advanced twenthieth-century dynamics.  Tonight’s concert featured a selection of chamber works, not all of which by Komitas (however, there was no printed program, and the principal conductor of the Opera, Karen Durgaryan, who both conducted and played the cello tonight, gave long introductions of each piece which I could not understand).  The fliers indicated that the works not by Komitas were from the Middle Ages, but it was hard to tell which those were (I presume some of the a capella choir music, but the harmonies were similar to the modern works certainly by Komitas).  A string quintet, made up of musicians from the opera orchestra, performed the first half of the concert, joined halfway through by additional strings and the Armenian Chorus of Blind People.

In 1915, Komitas lived in Constantinople and was arrested along with hundreds of Constantinople Armenians and deported to central Anatolia to be murdered with 1.5 million other Armenians.  His international renown won his release at the last moment, but not until after he witnessed the indescribable and suffered a complete breakdown.  He may have physically survived, but they had murdered his spirit.  The final twenty years of his life he spent confined to mental institutions.  He never composed again.

For some reason, his music is no longer performed in the West.  Its reintroduction is long overdue.  In the meantime, I got the experience of hearing it live in Yerevan.

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.