Kaj Nazar by Haro Stepanian, billed as Armenia’s first comic opera, has not been seen since its premiere in Yerevan in 1935. It was possibly a victim of Soviet displeasure.
Its title, which means Nazar the Brave, is not without irony. Drawing on traditional stories and a narrative by the poet Hovhaness Toumanian, it tells of a lazy, arrogant villager who somehow ends up as a supreme, war-mongering ruler. Starting off rather like the Grimm Brothers’ Valiant Little Tailor, it becomes closer to Rimsky-Korsakov’s caustic opera The Golden Cockerel.
Combining folk elements and sometimes abrasive modernism, the score is piquant, unpredictable and often witty. Its impact is assured by the conductor, Levon Parikian. The first two acts weave together flexible arioso and mercurial instrumental motifs, while Acts III and IV bring some longer-breathed numbers, including a dance sequence and a sinuous aria for Nazar’s long-suffering wife, Ustian.
Sung and played with spiky charm by Tereza Gevorgyan, she keeps close tabs on the Nazar of Berk Karazian. He pitches his comic antics precisely – this anti-hero is both exasperating and strangely endearing – while sustaining a lyrical tenor line. Aris Nadirian, London Armenian Opera’s artistic director, is a powerful vocal and physical presence as Sako, who becomes Nazar’s general, and each of the supporting singers makes a memorable impression.
Wisely, director Seta White does not encourage them to overact, not does she play for easy farcical laughs. Rather, she creates a series of almost ritualistic tableaux with simple decor, richly detailed costumes, a procession around the theatre and surreal projections such as a moon that becomes a rolling eyeball.