OPERA REVIEW : Armenians in 'Arshak II' at Wiltern

Times Music Writer

Written in 1868, half a century before Tigranian's "Anoush"--which is considered by some to be the first authentic Armenian opera--Tigran Tchoukhadjian's "Arshak II" is a hearty example of musical nationalism created on late-19th-Century Verdian models.

Receiving what was probably its first Southern California staging, on the second night of a premier local visit by the touring Spendarian State Opera from Erevan, "Arshak II" displayed many charms in the audience-friendly, if acoustically mixed, ambiance of the Wiltern Theatre.

For all those charms, however--and they include a well-built dramatic superstructure, attractive set-pieces in the form of arias, duets and larger vocal ensembles, some of them neatly utilizing chorus, dancers and orchestra to strong effect--the work does not consistently hold the sophisticated listener.

Though melodies abound in it, the score cannot unqualifiedly be called tuneful, nor its overall profile inspired. It may be put together cleverly, but it does not often strike the listener with originality or dramatic insights.

Still, it remains a happy reminder of more simple operatic times, and it received an appreciative, sometimes engaging, performance Thursday night.

A certain lack of concentration seemed to affect the performing company on this second night of its weeklong run here. Not the eight principals--they appeared to sing full-out, and without reticence or signs of fatigue--but chorus, orchestra and supernumeraries, including dancers. A shortage of energy characterized their mostly professional-level efforts.

Tchoukhadjian's uncomplicated musical lines--whatever compositional inventiveness he may have shown elsewhere, here the composer kept his writing simple--may not require virtuoso handling, but weaknesses of particular sections in both chorus and orchestra were made apparent with some regularity. And the dancing, from 12 apparently very green young women and men, proved unaligned and unaccomplished.

The most compelling vocalism came from the one principal who had participated in the opening-night performance, 24 hours before.

Tenor Gegham Grigorian produced ringing sound, consistent fervor, musical thrust and unflagging ardor as Tirit, political and romantic rival to the titular hero, Arshak. Grigorian, a portly but authoritative stage presence, does not act with finesse or subtlety, but he occupies his role wholeheartedly.

The rest of the cast sang competently, but without delivering a lot of thrills. Barsegh Toumanian sang confidently but undistinctively as Arshak, the returning king beset by intrigues in his court; reediness characterizes Toumanian's voice, impassivity his acting.

Hasmik Papian, a striking soprano of handsome physical features, displayed gorgeous high-note soft singing as the centerpiece of her portrayal of Arshak's queen, Olympia. Veteran mezzo Olga Gabayan turned in a solid, unremarkable performance. Another veteran, basso Nar Hovhannisian, took the crucial role of the priest, Nerses. Among the others, the strongest contribution was made by Raphael Hakobiants, an imposing, rich-voiced Spandarat.

Yuri Davtian conducted the orchestra gamely, bravely when the chorus raced ahead. The innocuous stage direction was credited to Tigran Levonian, the uncomplicated sets to Yevgeni Safranov.

"Anoush" will be performed tonight at 8, "Arshak II" on Sunday night. Then, Friday night, the company will give a concert of operatic excerpts.

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