When one thinks of the great opera centers of the world, certain cities spring automatically to mind: Vienna, Milan, Moscow, London, New York. . . .
The average aficionado does not think of Yerevan, the capital of Soviet Armenia. But Yerevan has a large, resourceful company called the Spendarian State Opera. It has been producing standard international works, along with a significant samplings of the Russian and Armenian repertory, with distinction since 1933.
Wednesday night, amid minimal brouhaha and despite considerable adversity, the company made its U.S. debut at the Wiltern Theater. The inaugural vehicle was Armen Tigranian's "Anoush," generally considered the first authentic Armenian opera.
Written in 1912, it has become a beloved folk ritual in Armenia. Nevertheless, it remains little known in the West. Detroit mustered an English-language performance a few years ago. Pasadena witnessed a concert abridgement in 1981. The opening performance here must have been the first major staging in the States.
It turned out to be a memorable occasion.
It wasn't a particularly glamorous occasion. The house wasn't quite full. The partisan audience--sophisticated and emphatically receptive--didn't resemble the crowd at gala Music Center openings.
There was an air of friendly improvisation in the hall. The programs never arrived, we were told. Some of the patrons in the balcony were temporarily displaced from their seats by the chorus at the beginning and end of the performance.
It didn't matter. The show had gone on in Los Angeles despite recent domestic disasters and severe financial problems. A visit to Detroit had to be canceled because it was felt there that any fund-raising should be concentrated on earthquake relief.
"This cultural undertaking," observed a crucial sponsor here, "is most important to the morale-building of the people in Armenia." The tour obviously represented a triumph of pride, and a labor of love, on both sides of the proscenium.
The endearingly creaky plot of "Anoush," based on Hovhannes Toumanian's poem, concerns ill-fated love, breaches of ancient moral codes, rustic chivalry, murder and suicide. There is even a mad scene. This is a quintessentially operatic slice of life in a 19th-Century Armenian village.
Tigranian's score may not surge with verismo passion. It does not cater to Western sensibilities that demand vast expressive development. To our ears, the music seems predicated on--and somewhat limited by--modal formulas and expressive restraint.
Still, within his own muted dynamic and dramatic scheme, Tigranian offers much color, reasonable fervor and considerable finesse. The melodies--arias, duets, celebration rituals, allusions to the ashughner minstrels--are folk-oriented, though the composer allows himself only one literal folk-song quotation.
These specifically national elements are skillfully manipulated within the framework of old-fashioned romantic opera. It is an provocative fusion of idioms.
The Spendarian production may have looked a bit primitive, but it lacked nothing in communicative conviction. Robert Nalbandian's simple set pieces and postcard vistas, apparently redesigned for export exigencies, provided all the basics except a precipice to accommodate the heroine's sacrificial leap at the final curtain. Vardan Ajemian's original staging, adapted by Vahagn Bagratuni, concentrated on picturesque groupings.
The ensemble was strong. Arax Mansourian, a poignant singing-actress cast as the village maiden of the title, introduced a limpid, wide-ranging spinto soprano capable of ravishing pianissimo effects. Gegham Grigorian offered hardly any theatrical credibility as her impetuous lover, but sang with easy fervor and a grainy timbre that recalled Jan Peerce at his best. Constantin Simonian brought ringing baritonal urgency to the mutterings of the heroine's vengeful brother.
The supporting roles were appreciatively cast. The chorus, reduced to 40 for the tour, sang with resonant spirit. The incidental dancers leaped and kicked with gusto.
Hakob Ter-Voskanian, artistic director of the company, conducted with the verve, control and savoir-faire of a dedicated old pro. The 55-piece orchestra, his own, played flexibly and sensitively in the rather crowded pit.
This wasn't a conventional night at the opera. But it was a fascinating night.
Repeat performances, with some casting variations, are scheduled for tonight and Saturday.