Tuesday, 7 April 2020

The Other Cleopatra: Queen of Armenia

The Other Cleopatra: Queen of Armenia, Vivaldi, Hasse, Gluck, arias from Il Tigrane; Isabel Baykdarian, Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra, Constantine Orbelian; DELOS
The Other Cleopatra: Queen of Armenia, Vivaldi, Hasse, Gluck, arias from Il Tigrane; Isabel Bayrakdarian, Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra, Constantine Orbelian; DELOS
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 4 April 2020 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
The young Canadian-Armenian soprano explores three Baroque operas based on the same libretto set in historical Armenia

In 1710, the librettist Pietro Andrea Bernardoni wrote a libretto for an opera in Vienna by Antonio Maria Bononcini, the plot for which was taken from Armenian history. As is the wont with these things, the libretto would travel and be set by a variety of composers, including Antonio Vivaldi (in a joint effort, an act each, with Benedetto Micheli and Nicola Romaldi), Johann Adolph Hasse and the young Christoph Willibald Gluck. One of the fascinating things about the opera is that the heroine is called Cleopatra, with no link to the Queen of Egypt.

On her new recital disc, The Other Cleopatra, the USA-based, Armenian-Canadian soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian explores Cleopatra's arias from the operas Il tigrane by Hasse, Vivaldi and Gluck, with the Kaunas City Symphony, conductor Constantine Orbelian, on Delos, with the music by Hasse and by Gluck being recorded for the first time.

The titular Cleopatra on this disc is Cleopatra of Pontus (110-58 BCE), the daughter of Mithridates VI of Pontus, who married King Tigranes II of Armenia, regarded as the greatest king in Armenian history, for which his wife made no little contribution. The plot of the opera, though has no basis in history as it presents Mitridate and Tigrane as enemies, so that Tigrane becomes that epitome of Baroque opera the noble hero undergoing testing times.

The disc gives us a fascinating glimpse of how three composers handled the same subject, whilst also showing us some of the period's operatic practices, whereby librettos were adapted for each production so that a different composer might use different aria texts for the same scene.



Vivaldi's opera Il Tigrane written for the 1724 carnival season in Rome (the opera was thought to have been based on a libretto by Abbate Francesco Silvane for Venice in 1691, but now Berndoni's libretto is considered to be the source). The opera falls in the middle of Vivaldi's operatic career, and in fact was something of a pasticcio and Vivaldi wrote Act II (which survives) whilst Benedetto Micheli took Act I, and Nicola Romaldi too Act III, neither of which survive. We hear three arias, 'Qui mentre mormorando' where Cleopatra sings of her love of King Tigrane, despite him being an enemy; this aria is short yet delightful with delicate murmuring strings and then, in a famous scene, Cleopatra falls asleep. With 'Squarciamipure il seno', she responds passionately to her father's forbidding of her love for Tigrane, and it is a highly dramatic and rather striking aria though occasionally Bayrakdarian seems to bend the pitch somewhat too much. Then in 'Lascera l'amata salma' she expects to die. It is rather a galant aria which seems to look forward to Elysium rather than exploring the emotional torture Cleopatra is going through.

Hasse's Tigrane was written for performance in 1729 at the Teatro San Bartolomeo in Naples, using a libretto based on that for Vivaldi's opera. It is an early opera by Hasse, he had travelled from his native Saxony in 1722 and lived in Naples for six or seven years. His best known operas all date from after 1730, when he was appointed Kapellmeister at the court of Dresden.

We hear five arias from Hasse's opera. From Act I, 'Vuoi chi'io t'oda?' when Cleopatra responds angrily to the suggestions from a rival that she give up her love of Tigrane, and 'Che gran pena' the final scene of Act I where she is overcome with remorse having quarrelled with Tigrane. 'Vuoi chi'io t'oda?', which features some strong low notes, and the rather galant Che gran pena' give a sense of Bayrakdarian's vibrant style of performance.

From Act II we hear, 'Strappane pure il seno', Cleopatra's response to her father when he forbids her love for Tigrane, a fast, vivid number, and 'Degli'Elisi alle Campagne' when she announces she wishes to die, which is more gently pastoral.  From Act III, we hear 'Presso a l'onde', her response to Tigrane's news that he would die rather than accept life without her, a graceful aria with some wide leaps which is perhaps more grateful to sing than expressive of Cleopatra's emotional situation. We also hear the overture to Hasse's opera, the only purely orchestra work on the disc. It starts fast, with prominent horn parts,  and develops into a substantial piece with slower galant sections. As well as the arias, Bayrakdarian gives us the recitatives as well providing important connective tissue.

Gluck's Il Tigrane seems to be his fourth opera, with a libretto by Carlo Goldoni based on that previously used by Vivaldi and Hasse, which was performed in Crema (near Cremona) in 1743, eleven arias and a duet survive from the opera. It is very much Gluck in pre-Reform mode. We hear 'Nero tubo il ciel imbruna' from Act I, again from the conclusion to that act after Cleopatra's argument with Tigrane, full of busy moments and dramatically angular lines; it is a long aria, and we can clearly hear Gluck's mature style hovering in the background. Then comes 'Priva del caro bene', when she wants to die rather than not marry Tigrane, a gentler piece but again with a certain interesting angularity to the line. Finally, there is 'Presso l'onda' from Act III as per Hasse's opera, which makes quite a powerful conclusion to the disc.

Isabel Bayrakdarian is not a period music specialist, but a young artist with a wide lyric range from Susanna in Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro to Blanche in Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmelites, not to mention Teresa in Berlioz' Benvenuto Cellini. She has quite a big, vibrant voice which navigates with ease the passage-work required, whilst she is adept also with the varying tessitura's of the roles. Cleopatra in Hasse's opera seems to lie particularly low.

None of the operas on the disc seems ground-breaking, but Bayrakdarian's gathering of three different composers writing for the same character in the same (-ish) librettos makes a different way of approaching the music. The performances from Orbelian and the Kaunas City Symphony match Bayrakdarian's performances, not unstylish, quite modern in style but with sufficient historically informed style to make them not seem old-fashioned.

This seems to have very much been a personal project of Bayrakdarian's, arising partly out of research at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she is associate professor of voice and opera, and of course party out of the historical Armenian setting of the operas (Bayrakdarian was born in Armenia, and emigrated to Canada with her parents when she was a girl). She writes a lively introduction in the CD booklet, which includes plot summaries, texts and translations.


The Other Cleopatra: Queen of Armenia
Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) - Il Tigrane (excerpts) (1724)
Johann Adolph Hasse (1699-1783) - Il Tigrane (excerpts) (1729)
Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787) - Il Tigrane (excerpts) (1743)
Isabel Baykdarian (soprano)
The Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra
Jory Vinikour (harpsichord continuo)
Constantine Orbelian (conductor)
Recorded at Kaunas Philharmonic, September 2019
DELOS DE3591 1CD [64.06]

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