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The Other Cleopatra: Queen of Armenia
Johann Adoph HASSE (1699-1783)
Il Tigrane (1729) - Selections
Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)
Il Tigrane (1724) - Selections
Christoph Willibald GLUCK (1714-1787)
Il Tigrane (1743) – Selections
Isabel Bayrakdarian (soprano)
Jory Vinikour (harpsichord),
Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra/Constantine Orbelian
rec. 2019 Kaunas Philharmonic, Kaunas, Lithuania
Texts in Italian (original language) with English translations
DELOS DE3591 [64:06]

Soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian was born in Zahlé, Lebanon to Armenian parents, but in her teens moved with her family to Canada. In 1997, she graduated cum laude from University of Toronto with a degree in biomedical engineering. That same year she was selected as a winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, after which she launched her highly successful artistic career and moved to the United States. She has appeared at many of the world’s major opera houses, including the Met, Chicago Lyric Opera, Royal Opera House, Paris Opera, La Scala and many others. She has also regularly performed in concerts with major orchestras in the US, Canada and Europe. She has made a number of recordings for various labels, including Alliance, Analekta, CBC, MCO and Delos.

What is intriguing about Ms. Bayrakdarian's new recording is the idea behind it. As a faculty member at the Department of Music at the University of California, Santa Barbara, she became interested during research there in the rather arcane subject of Baroque operas about the Armenian King Tigranes II, who lived from 140—55 BC. No doubt her Armenian heritage also played a role in her curiosity in what became a project leading to this CD. For this recording, Ms. Bayrakdarian has chosen selections from three operas written about the king, all wherein she sings the character of Cleopatra, not to be confused with the more famous Cleopatra, whom the soprano chose as the subject for an earlier recording for CBC Records. The less known one here, Cleopatra of Pontus, was the Queen Consort of King Tigranes II.

The three composers featured on this recording all entitled their operas Il Tigrane and used the same libretto, by Abate Francesco Silvani. Antonio Vivaldi and Christoph Willibald Gluck are well known. Johann Adolph Hasse is little known today, though he was quite famous in his day mainly for his operas. There are nine selections here by Hasse, including an Overture, four by Vivaldi and three by Gluck. The scoring by the three composers is mostly for strings and harpsichord, though Hasse uses two horns in the Overture and Gluck adds pairs of horns and oboes to his orchestra. Ms. Bayrakdarian tells us in an album note that the selections by Hasse and Gluck are premiere recordings. I will accept that, though too often some little known recording source from decades ago or even recent times is cited in a note from an astute reader to contradict premiere claims.

Ms. Bayrakdarian’s voice is both very appealing and highly versatile. She has sung a variety of roles attesting to her versatility: Susanna (Le Nozze di Figaro), Zerlina (Don Giovanni), and Pamina (The Magic Flute), all by Mozart; Blanche in Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites, the title role in Handel’s Poppea, Rosina in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, Mélisande in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, Romilda in Handel’s Serse, Catherine in Bolcom’s A View From the Bridge and much else from various periods, including a vast concert repertory. To call her a lyric soprano may not cover her considerable range, but to go beyond classification, what I have noticed about her voice is its strength throughout her range. But she also has a fine sense for drama and her interpretive instincts are excellent.

The opening number here, Vuoi chi’io t’oda?, reveals her in a vibrant, but defiant mood, the text showing Cleopatra denouncing Apamia, her rival for Tigranes’s love. She also steadfastly rejects the ambitious Orontes’s love for her in favor of Tigranes. Here the soprano brims with energy in her resoluteness, her angelic voice beginning mellowly in the lower ranges and then resonating beautifully and almost overwhelmingly in the upper notes. The aria Che gran pena (track 3), one of the more attractive ones on the disc, shows Cleopatra remorseful and distressed over a quarrel with Tigranes. Here one notices Bayrakdarian’s subtle use of dynamics and her fine sense for drama in conveying her heartrending feelings, her voice soaring to beautiful heights in the process.

Cleopatra brims with breathless energy in her abject anxiety in Bayrakdarian’s ensuing aria, Strappami pure il seno, as she pleads with her father King Mithridates on behalf of Tigranes. Her effortless voice skillfully negotiates every twist and turn in the rush of notes. Degli'Elisi alle Campagne (track 6), another fine aria, showcases Bayrakdarian’s versatile vocalism. Hasse could write quite well and is likely a candidate for a sort of modest revival at least. Constantine Orbelian and the orchestra deliver a fine account of the overture to close out Hasse’s contribution here.

The Vivaldi portion of the disc opens with a brief recitative Lasciatemi in riposo (track 10) to set up the ensuing aria Qui mentre mormorando, which is also rather brief but quite attractive and well sung here. The most substantial number by Vivaldi is the closing Lascerà l’amata (track 13) which, though repetitive, is also a fine aria: Cleopatra firmly rejects Orontes (as in the Hasse) and declares her love for Tigranes. Bayrakdarian handles the coloratura runs quite effectively.

She brilliantly negotiates the same kind of difficult writing in Gluck’s aria Nero turbo il ciel imbruna (track 14). At over eight minutes, it is the longest number on the disc and one of the finest arias in this collection. The penultimate Gluck selection, Priva del caro bene, perhaps the most emotionally overwrought aria here, is especially beautifully sung.

Throughout the disc Conductor Orbelian and the Kaunas players turn in excellent work, and harpsichordist Jory Vinikour plays admirably. Delos offers fine, well balanced sound and the album notes are very informative. Full texts are provided in the original Italian, with English translations. In the end, I must assess the performances as outstanding, and if you find this rather rare repertory to your liking – and so much of it is very good – you will be highly rewarded by this disc.

Robert Cummings

Johann Adolph Hasse
Il Tigrane (1729)
1. Vuoi chi’io t’oda? [4:41]
2. E’i parte…O Dio [2:28]
3. Che gran pena [6:31]
4. Strappami pure il seno [3:15]
5. Del suo duol [0:43]
6. Degli’ Elisi alle Campagne [5:42]
7. Parte, parte Tigrane [1:59]
8. Presso a l’onde [4:58]
9. Overture [5:22]

Antonio Vivaldi
Il Tigrane (1724)
10. Lasciatemi in riposo [0:51]
11. Qui mentre mormorando [2:23]
12. Squarciami pure il seno [3:29]
13. Lascerà l’amata [6:10]

Christoph Willibald Gluck
Il Tigrane (1743)
14. Nero turbo il ciel imbruna [8:04]
15. Priva del caro bene [5:09]
16. Presso l’onda [2:17]

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