The chimera of the long-forgotten masterwork, languishing in history’s dustbin then rediscovered and newly acclaimed, fires any opera producer’s hopes and ambitions. Surely no opera has accumulated a thicker coat of dust – at least in the world annals – than Tigran Chukhadjian’s Arshak II, which had its world premiere (sort of) during the opening weekend of San Francisco Opera’s 79th season. And surely no opera in recent memory, accorded so handsome an opportunity to state its case, has failed more abjectly to live up to expectations.

Chukhadjian (1837-1898) – the latest Grove reverses prior practice and appends an initial “T,” while San Francisco’s program literature had it both ways – was born in Turkey of Armenian parentage and studied in Milan (where he apparently listened well). Settling later in Armenia he composed prolifically, turning out a repertory of light operas with such arresting titles as Hor-Hor, the Chick-Pea Seller and The Balding Elder, works which went some distance toward establishing an indigenous Armenian repertory. His most ambitious opera, composed in 1868, was, however, to an Italian text; it  bore the title Arsace II, with libretto  by Tovmas (or Tommaso) Tersian, and concerned the exploits, treachery and death of the title character, the 4th-century Armenian tyrant Arshak the Second.  Only excerpts were performed in the composer’s lifetime; in the 1940s the score was rediscovered among the papers of Chukhadjian’s widow. It was then extensively revised and outfitted with a new Armenian text by a certain Armen Goulakian, in which the historic tyrant had metamorphosed into a proto-Stalinist superhero. That version still circulates in Armenia. Okay so far?

San Francisco’s Arshak II was, however, not very much of the above. There is in Paris, if you’re ready, a “Dikran Tchouhadjian [sic] Research Centre” which, in 1998, persuaded general manager Lotfi Mansouri to graft the original Arsace/Arshak onto roots it never really possessed, by commissioning  a translation of Versian’s Italian libretto into Armenian – a process comparable, say, to “restoring” Lucia di Lammermoor into Gaelic. This neo-Arshak, as translated and edited by latter-day Chukhadjianists Haig Avakian and Gerald Papasian, is what had its world premiere in San Francisco on September 8.

How did it get there? Armenian violinist Gerard Svazlian, who had played in the opera at the National Theater in Yerevan, brought his enthusiasms to his present post in San Francisco’s opera orchestra, raised a seven-figure bundle among Armenian communities nationwide toward an eventual performance. He then got Mansouri – himself from the neighboring country of Iran – to look beyond the matter of special-interest groups buying into cultural resources, and accord Arshak II place of preference as the final novelty of his stewardship.

Why did it get there? That, alas, is not so readily answered. For all the hopes raised by the possible rediscovery of a grandly conceived historico-socio pageant by a composer concerned with nationalistic opera – and 1868 was also, after all, the year of Boris Godunov — the actual result of all this dedicated research and restoration is just one more workmanlike product of the mid-century Italian opera factory that chugged along in Verdi’s shadow.  The plotline is solid enough: black-hearted tyrant rejects loving wife, murders brother, lusts after sister-in-law, repents too late. At the final bloodbath the crown lies onstage, unclaimed. Armenia’s crown? Scotland’s? Tasmania’s? Little in the score defines place or ethnicity. A neutral wash of Bellinian harmony beguiles the ear at times, but the music seems fatally mired. It doesn’t move, in either the physical or emotional sense. The composer, we read, was variously described in the press of his time as “the Armenian Verdi” or “the Armenian Offenbach,”  but his Arshak II — at least in its considerably (and considerately)  cut  San Francisco incarnation – seldom rises to the level of, say, an Armenian Mercadante.

Even so, the work drew masterpiece treatment under Loris Tjeknavorian’s sturdy baton. On John Coyne’s set, a series of rotating piled-up rough-cut pieces, Francesca Zambello’s staging was your basic good, solid epic-opera biz: chorus left, chorus right, bodies down front; heroine in a prison cage up above. Among the Armenian vocal contingent, soprano Hasmik Papian radiated convincing intensity as the rejected Queen Olimpia; the impressive bass Tigran Martirossian was the high-priest Nerses.  As the evil Arshak, Christopher Robertson cut a striking figure not quite matched by a rather voiceless delivery; Armenia’s Anooshah Golesorkhi is slated to assume the role in later performances. As the scheming sister-in-law Paransema France’s Nora Gubisch got to steal scenes in the way mezzo-sopranos in romantic operas are meant to.

San Francisco’s opening-night Rigoletto was, by comparison, mostly business-as-usual, in the 1997 Mark Lamos production on Michael Yeargan’s splendid Chirico-esque forced-perspective unit set. The young (24) Sicilian soprano Désirée Rancatore was the winsome new Gilda in her U.S. opera debut, charming and adept if somewhat small of voice for this oversized house. Frank Lopardo was the dashing, resonant Duke; Stephan Pyatnychko the merely adequate Rigoletto. Marco Armiliato conducted, observing none of the cuts that used to disfigure this wondrous opera in less enlightened times. From her highly visible first-tier box, the company’s new general director Pamela Rosenberg beamed at the well-dressed crowd. It wasn’t really her night as yet; her own programming won’t fall into place for another year. That, too, promises enlightenment.    ALAN RICH

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