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Tigran Chakhadjian's "Arshak II" was composed in 1868. The first Armenian opera didn't receive it's world premiere until the current San Francisco Opera production opened September 8, 2001. It's an intriguing work that delves into the human psyche, exploring love, lust, and the quest for total power in much the same way as Shakespeare's "Richard III," but with much less thematic and dramatic development.

It's general celebration as Arshak returns victorious from war with the Persians. He's carried in triumphantly on a platform with banners. The brightly colored costumes lend a festive air, and black robed monks holding orthodox crosses pray for peace. The single set is a mighty stone edifice that's moved around to various positions on the stage, and together with occasional mountain ranges on the backdrop capture the flavor of what I imagine Armenia to be, at least in the 4th century when this takes place.

Arshak has secretly killed his father, King Daran, and banished his brother Knell. At one time he had loved Paransema, but when she married his brother he married Olimpia. Paransema now begs Arshak to let Knell return. In a beautifully sweet aria she offers him flowers and scatters petals at is feet. He grabs her and his soldiers carry her away for him.

Knell has returned, and is hiding among the rocks when soldiers approach. It's his old friend Valinace, commander of the Armenian Army, and they swear vengeance on Arshak. Valinace goes to Olimpia and tells her Arshak is going to replace her as Queen with Paransema, falls at her feet professing his love for her, then pleads with her to take her son and flee. The son tries to drag her away, but she hesitates, is captured, and taken to the tower. When Arshak bursts in with his soldiers, the priest Nerses warns him against revenge and predicts his downfall. Paransema enters distraught with the mortally wounded Knell. They sing a liltingly sweet death duet and are alternately joined by Arshak and Olimpia. Nerses' rolling bass laments "O Night of Horror" as the others join in. Knell curses Arshak and dies. Arshak gives Paransema a ghastly embrace as she kneels over her fallen husband.

Arshak broods over his crown that's adorned with shining jewels like a thousand drops of blood. He's killed his father and brother, broken Olimpia's heart, and made Paransema his bride. He longs for Olimpia again. Paransema overhears him in the background and she goes to the tower and kills Olimpia's son to keep him from becoming king. Olimpia's lowered in a cage from the ceiling. Veiled women in white carry the white covered body in and set it on the stage. Olimpia sings a tragic aria and falls flat on the floor.

Steam roils from the floor, thunder and lightning shake the walls, and an amplified offstage chorus of "Tremble cowards, death draws near" terrifies Arshak and Paransema in the graveyard. Their victims parade before them and the ghosts are given a little reverb to create a ghastly supernatural scene. Paransema says she will follow him hurtling toward damnation. Arshak says all Armenia mourns as he calls the Angels of Death. He throws her off, and they leave in different directions.

Olimpia's cage is lowered again. She dreams of happy times and dancers do a beautiful little ballet under the cage. The happy vision fades and she's freed by Nerses to be Queen again. She lies crying at the front of the stage. Arshak pleads for her forgiveness and the crowd asks "What mystery is this? Arshak has humbled himself."

The general assembly celebrates Olimpia's crowning. There's an extended ballet that combines elements of classical and folk dance with lifts, kicks, splits, and rolls. There's a celebration of wine and they drink and make merry. Paransema appears and plots her revenge of Knell's death with the poisoned wine. She recounts her happiness and then Arshak's crimes against her. She drinks some of the wine and gives some to Olimpia. As they start to die from the poison, Arshak embraces Olimpia and Paransema stabs him.

"Arshak II" is Tigran Chukhadjian's first opera and it shows in many ways. At times it seems more like a series of vignettes, rather than the high drama that the subject lends itself to. The characters are well developed and it fits together reasonably well, but at times the overall development of both the characters and action lack definition. Overall, though, it's a very entertaining show and the music is absolutely gorgeous. Loris Tjeknavorian conducted this world premiere of "Arshak II" at the San Francisco Opera.

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