The Other Cleopatra

othercleopatraIsabel Bayrakdarian’s latest CD is rather odd. The material is obscure. It’s all taken from 18th century operas about the Armenian king Tigranes and his daughter Cleopatra. The plots are basically the same. Tigranes wants Cleopatra to make a marriage of state but she is in love with Tigranes’ enemy Mithridates. The outcomes are predictable. Apparently, these operas are Bayrakdarian’s academic specialty and she has chosen excerpts from Cleopatra’s part in versions by Hasse, Vivaldi and Gluck.

The Hasse excerpts form about half the hour long CD. It’s about as dull as baroque opera gets. It’s one paced and repetitive and the excerpts chosen, including a fair bit of recitative, give no opportunity for the singer to display any pyrotechnics. Whether this is because Hasse didn’t write anything like that or whether it’s a reflection of Bayrakdarian’s current capabilities we get a hint later on in the recording.

The balance of the album is divided between Vivaldi and Gluck. The Vivaldi is a bit livelier than the Hasse, especially the Act II aria Squarciami pure il seno which almost, but not quite, generates some fireworks but it’s still basically the same old baroque plodding. There’s a change of pace with the Gluck. The aria Nero turbo il ciel imbruna is a genuine da capo aria with some fairly lengthy and involved runs. This is where we learn why such pieces have so far been eschewed. It’s a mess of imprecision and scooping and very hard to listen to. The two Gluck pieces that close the album out are back in safer territory.

I find myself somewhat puzzled that anyone would want to record this repertoire but even more puzzled that Bayrakdarian should choose to sing it. While it would have suited her very nicely two decades ago when she had a light, bright, agile soprano it sounds entirely wrong in her hands now. The voice is too dark, the vibrato is too pronounced, she’s scooping for high notes and there is a general lack of precision. Really, the last thing she should be singing is the king’s young daughter in a baroque opera.

Orchestral accompaniment is from the Kaunas City Symphony under Constantine Orbelian. They cope perfectly well with mostly rather uninspired writing.

From a technical perspective the recording, made at the Kaunas Philharmonic in September 2019 is fine. The balance is good and it’s quite clear and truthful. The disk package includes Bayrakdarian’s notes on the music and full texts in Italian and English.

So, something of an oddity that is perhaps trying to capitalize on the success of Bayrakdarian’s earlier, and much, much better Cleopatra album. I can’t recommend it.

Catalogue Number: Delos DE3591

This review first appeared in the Summer 2020 edition of Opera Canada.

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