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 January 24, 2003 

Sour Notes: National Opera gets rough reception from Moscow media

The National Academic Opera and Ballet Theater of Armenia opened the new stage of the Moscow Bolshoi Theatre earlier this month, performing "Norma" by Vincenzo Bellini.

Art director and popular tenor Gegham Grigoryan says the sold-out performances (900 seats at $40-50) gained showers of praise from audiences.

But bravos and calls for encores were not coming from the Moscow critics, one even saying that some parts of the performances were "like a New Year amateur performance".

"We also often don't like our opera performances, the main shortcoming of which is staging, but not vocal part," says Armenian music critic Nelly Mkhitaryan. "This is a terrible offense, when Russians crucified the performance." Mkhitaryan added that it would be better had the Armenian troupe not gone rather than to return disgraced.

Before the performances in Moscow management of the Theatre told Russian journalists about all the problems the Armenian Opera has endured: no rehearsals in wintertime because there is no heating; singers had practiced "Norma" in a hurry in a small room just before the guest performances. And he didn't forget to mention the low salary of the Theatre artists (leading singers get $30 a month, chief conductor $70).

The Russian media expressed shock upon learning that $35,000 had been spent to bring the performance to Moscow.

"Amounts nearly equal to this are usually spent for our medium quality performances," writes one of the well-known papers, Izvestiya. "While Yerevan's 'Norma' had a staging director, it is difficult to believe that the major part of $35,000 has been spent for the protagonist's costume.

"When it was necessary to imitate night, a moon that had been hidden under a black rag would appear on the background decoration. When they approached the blood denouement, a naked dagger would hang down from above, and when there were parts about the yoke of the Roman empire on the Gauls a big Roman shoe hung above the stage. . ."

As close as the critic came to praise was a mention of saying that lead singer Anahit Mkhitaryan, "Easily overcoming difficult passages she often got out of time. In that unheated Yerevan theatre you can find a lot of Normas and Adalgisas like those."

Quite the contrary, the Moscow Times writes, "Anahit Mkhitaryan, who sang the role of Norma, proved to be no Maria Callas, but nevertheless gave a highly effective performance, her rather lightweight soprano pure from top to bottom, with a smooth legato and sparkling coloratura."

"Norma" surely counts as one of the most challenging works in all operas. It requires a soprano and mezzo soprano with wide range, secure technique.

Norma's part is one of the most difficult ones in the world opera repertoire, and it has rarely been staged. Four years prior to the death of Bellini, in 1831 Milan's audience disrupted with criticism the first performance of the opera "Norma". Since then, when society came to love the opera of Bellini, very few singers dared to set to the most difficult part. Only in 1950 "Norma" went through its renaissance, when Maria Callas included part of Norma in her repertoire.

"I don't quite understand why they are pursuing formalities and performed with the extremely difficult opera in Moscow," says Armenian theater critic Anzhela Mirzoyan. "They could perform with Aram Khachaturyan's 'Spartak' or other Armenian opera, for which for sure they wouldn't be criticized like it has happened."

After performance of "Norma" the Russian audience learned that Armenian "Norma" and its actors had applied for participation in famous "Golden Mask" festival in four nominations "Best performance", "Best actress in opera", "Best actor in opera" and "Best conductor".

That fact shocked Russian press. Izvestia writes, "Yerevan theatre will look terribly odd there."

And Vremia Novostei newspaper compares the situation in the following way: "It's the same as if a rag-doll with buttons instead of eyes could attract attention if placed between two Barbie dolls."


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