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The Other Cleopatra - Queen of Armenia
Isabel Bayrakdarian (soprano)
Jory Vinikour (harpsichord)
Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra/Constantine Orbelian
rec. 2019, Kaunas Philharmonic, Lithuania
Sung texts with English translations enclosed
DELOS DE3591 [64:06]

Fourteen years ago I reviewed a disc with arias and duets by Mozart, performed by three Canadian singers. One of them was Armenian born soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian, whom I had read some rave reviews about but never before heard. I was overwhelmed about her singing and hoped to hear more of her, but for some reason I never came across further recordings by her – until now when she presents this thrilling and interesting programme with music from three operas about the Armenian King Tigranes II. But more precisely the music here is for Tigranes’s Queen Cleopatra, thus the title “The Other Cleopatra”, not to mix her up with the better known Cleopatra of Egypt.

Ms Bayrakdarian has undertaken extensive research about Baroque composers who have written operas about King Tigranes II and found at least twenty-four operas, most of them lost. Here though she has gathered excerpts from three operas by Hasse, Vivaldi and Gluck and focuses on the role of Cleopatra. All three operas are said to be based on a libretto by Abate Francesco Silvani (1660 – 1728), used as early as 1691 in Venice. However, according to Wikipedia, later research has identified at least the libretto for the Vivaldi opera to be by a Pietro Andrea Bernardoni and previously used in Vienna in 1710. We need not go into the plot very deeply but the story is centred on the love between Tigranes and Cleopatra.

The earliest of the operas is Vivaldi’s, performed in Rome 1724. This was in fact a collaboration between Vivaldi and two other composers: Benedetto Micheli and Nicola Romaldi. They wrote one act each and Vivaldi was allotted act II, which is the only one that has survived. Vivaldi has long been famous for his numerous concertos, but his vocal music has more and more attracted attention of late, both his sacred works and his operas. The complete act II has been recorded on Hungaroton and the aria Squarciami pure il seno separately by both Simone Kermes and Regula Mühlemann. It is a riveting piece, fast and dramatic, and it is performed here with verve and commitment. But even more memorable is Qui mentre mormorando, beautifully sung by Isabel Bayrakdarian, and here she proves that she has retained all the vocal qualities that were so endearing fourteen years ago. The same can be said about the third aria: Lascierà l’amata. Vivaldi was just as capable to write for the human voice as for instruments.

Johann Adolph Hasse also knew the human voice, being a singer himself and also a good actor. Born in Bergedorf near Hamburg he started his singing career as a tenor at the Oper am Gänsemarkt in Hamburg before he was twenty. He also debuted as composer at an early age while still in Germany but then he went to Italy and spent most of the 1720s in Naples and it was there his version of Il Tigrane premiered in 1929. During the following years he had important posts in Dresden and other places but he ended his long life in Venice in 1783. For the record can be mentioned that he was married to the famous soprano Faustina Bordoni and was a friend of librettist Pietro Metastasio, whose texts he frequently set. After his death he was completely forgotten but in recent times he has had a modest but anyway renaissance. In the 1980s his opera Cleofide from 1731 was recorded under William Christie with Emma Kirkby in the title role. A set that is certainly worth seeking out. Today he is fairly well represented in the catalogues, both by complete operas and other works. Those unfamiliar with Hasse’s music can get a substantial taster on the present disc with six arias and the overture from Il Tigrane, and they certainly whet the appetite. It’s easy to understand that he was so popular during his heydays. This is great music, dramatic and melodious and gives the singer plenty of opportunities to display both her technical capacity and the beauty of tone. In 18th century’s Naples every aria must have been showstoppers!

Christoph Willibald Gluck’s stab at the Tigrane story is an early essay from 1743. It was only his second opera and it was a long time – almost twenty years – before he presented the first of his reform operas, Orfeo ed Euridice. Here he was still rooted in the old opera seria tradition with plenty of embellishments. But one can have a premonition of things to come, in particular in Priva del caro bene, where there is a great deal of Gluckian nobility – and Isabel Bayrakdarian’s reading of it is also suitably noble. Let me add that neither the Hasse nor the Gluck arias have been recorded before, which is a further asset with this project – besides the fact that the singing is so utterly attractive. The playing of the Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra under their principal conductor Constantine Orbelian cannot be faulted, though the recording puts them too much in the background.

All in all, however, this is a valuable addition to our knowledge of 18th century Italian opera – even though two of the three composers were Germans!

Göran Forsling

Previous review: Robert Cummings

Johann Adoplh HASSE (1699 – 1783)
Il Tigrane (1729):
1. Act I, Scene 8 Aria: Vuoi ch’io t’oda? [4:41]
2. Act I, Scene 13 Recitative accompagnato: E’i parte ... Ma che parlo [2:28]
3. Aria: Che gran pena [6:31]
4. Act II, Scene 4 Aria: Strappami pure il seno [3:15]
5. Act II, Scene 15 Recitative: Del suo duol [0:43]
6. Aria: Degli’Elisi alle Campagne [5:42]
7. Act III, Scene 11 Recitative: Parte, perte Tigrane ... [1:59]
8. Aria: Press’all’onde [4:58]
9. Overture [5:22]
Antonio VIVALDI (1678 – 1741)
Il Tigrane (1724):
10. Act II, Scene 1 Recitative: Lasciatemi in riposo [0:51]
11. Aria: Qui mentre mormorando [2:23]
12. Act II, Scene 4 Aria: Squarciami pure il seno [3:29]
13. Act II, Scene 11 Aria: Lascierà l’amata [6:10]
Christoph Willibald GLUCK (1714 – 1787)
Il Tigrane (1743):
14. Act I, Scene 13 Aria: Nero turbo il ciel imbruna [8:04]
15. Act II, Scene 14 Aria: Priva del caro bene [5:09]
16. Act III, Scene 12 Aria: Presso l’ondra [2:17]

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