BY NAZ DERSARKISSIAN
Asbarez Community Editor
SAN FRANCISCO–Dikran Chukhadjian’s 1868 opera–Arshak II had a triumphant world premier at the San Francisco Opera Saturday night with a full house crowd of 3,000 music lovers and opera enthusiasts–who had gathered from throughout the country to experience the historic premier.
Banned by Ottoman Turkish authorities–on the grounds of nationalist propaganda–the opera–penned some 133 years–saw the stage for the first time Saturday–becoming a source of pride and inspiration for Armenian throughout the world.
The evening included three separate event–with the world premier presentation highlighting the night’s festivities. Prior to the premier–a gala banquet was held–attended by hundreds of benefactors and art patron–the proceeds from which will be allocated to the Vanadzor Music School in the Lori region.
The gala was sponsored by Wells Fargo–with sponsorship provided by Louise Simone–Anna Hovnanian–George and Flora Dunaians–Dr. Julie Kulhanjian and Roger Strauss.
Following the premier a celebration was held–honoring the performers and producers of the milestone.
The presentation of the Arshak II opera by the San Francisco Opera–can be deemed as a major milestone for Armenian art and culture–and efforts to present works by Armenian artists to the international community.
While the opera itself is not the best in its genre–nevertheless–the effort must be commended as a demonstration of the rich Armenian tradition.
To successfully stage the work–the San Francisco Opera created two separate commissions to consult on artistic and historical direction–as well as community relations. The first commission was comprised of historians and academicians–such as Prof. Richard Hovannisian–James Russel–Dickran Kouyoumjian–Lucy Der Manuelian and others–who provided a historical perspective and ensured accuracy and continuity within the production.
The second commission led by Julie Kulhanjian and Denise LaPuente–became the liaison committee with the San Francisco Opera.
At 8 p.m. Saturday–the San Francisco Opera broke the dead silence in the opera hall–by raising its curtains for the premier performance–which was presented in Armenia’s with English supertitles. Armenia’s and non-Armenia’s in the audience listened attentively as the fourth century Armenia came alive on stage–and the audience was exposed to the history of the kingdom and the role of the church in the Armenian cultural reality.
Among the dignitaries attending the premier were Western Primate Arch. Vatche Hovsepian–Western Prelate Bishop Moushegh Mardirossian–Congressman Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)–California State Senators Chuck Poochigian and Jackie Spier–California State Assembly members Joe Simitian and Don Perato–San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown–Armenia’s Ambassador to the US Dr. Armand Kirakosian–Armenia Consul General to Los Angeles Valery Mgrtoumian–Armenia’s education minister Edward Ghazaryan and artists Lucine Amara–Lily Chukaszian and Shahan Ardzruni.
In reviewing the opera the Contra Cosa Times wrote–"Employing a new performing edition by musicologist Haig Avakian and dramaturg Gerald Papasian–with Tovmas Tersian’s original Italian libretto translated into Armenian–director Francesca Zambello has staged the opera in an epic sweep–making its dramatic points with clarity and respect for the score. John Coyne’s fluid–majestic sets–atmospherically lit by Mark McCullough–suggest locales from palace to prison to countryside–and costumes by Anita Yarich lend an air of luxury and exoticism."
"Above all–this is a production unified in purpose–from the attentive conducting of Loris Tjeknavorian in the pit–to the smallest singing role," the Contra Cosa Times music critic Georgian Rowe wrote.
"And the singing was superb throughout. Baritone Christopher Robertson was a commanding Arshak–one whose ruthless lust for domination never flagged. Yet–amid all the cruelty–Robertson’s finest moment was during an aria in which–like Macbeth–he is haunted by his past deeds," added Rowe.
"The evening’s most luminous performance–however–belonged to Armenian soprano Hasmik Papian–who imbued the character of Arshak’s first wife–Olimpia–with dignity and sublime vocal beauty. Papian simply burned with conviction; her Act III lament for her murdered son–sung from inside a cage suspended above the stage–was the evening’s most potent fusion of music and theater," said Rowe.
The staging of the opera was borne by San Francisco Opera’s violinist Jirair Svazlian–who convinced then director Lotfi Mansouri to bring forth an Armenian-themed opera. Mansouri agreed–but urged Svazlian to raise funds for the production.
In an effort launched by Svazlian–some $1 million was raised by the California and Armenian-American communities–making the staging of Arshak II a reality.
The opera was prepared by the head of the Tigran Chukhadjian Research Institute Gerald Papasian and Tovmas Tersian.
The Arshak II premier received wide media coverage from regional and local newspapers and television outlets in San Francisco.