The Armenian opera Fire Ring came with crimson power and Avet Terterian’s musical imagination at the Arcola Theatre for its annual Grimeborn Festival. It was the first time many theatregoers had seen or heard an authentic Armenian Opera, which left many thoroughly enlightened. It was in the main studio that a diverse range of artistic types made their mark on director Seta White’s stage: tragic opera, harmonic and atonal music with translucent dance performances to balance out the hard tension intended by its composer.
The London Armenian Opera (LAO) presented Armenian mysticism and creative flair, encapsulating its influence from the story by B. Lavrenev Forty First, a tale of love, war and revolution, and they weren’t alone. Akhtamar Performance Group and a small ensemble, conducted by music director Richard Harker, thrilled audiences which had them hanging off the edge of their seats.
Not many are familiar with the Armenian composer Terterian (1929-1994), yet he produced several works including symphonies and chamber works from behind the Iron Curtain and was praised by Russian composer, Dmitri Shostakovitch. His opera Fire Ring demonstrates the composer’s creative spark for the eclectic: modern experimentalism and Armenian motifs with atonality. This is completely justified for an opera that goes as far back as 1967 which found familiar footing in LAO’s 2016 staging.
Grimeborn has co-produced the work with LAO which expresses the bittersweet torment of a brave girl stuck on an island with the enemy. The opera captures the unsettling and internal struggles of the girl performed by Tereza Gevorgyan who sang with authority and confidence. She provided no sign of vulnerability but pure strength and loyalty to her comrades in the battle. Gevorgyan was vocally charged with passion, yet it was hard to find a sense of affection in her voice, which was also the case for Aris Nadirian, the officer from the other side. Nadirian is a talented performer who also has a gift for the stage, yet the union between these lovers seems invisible, which, unfortunately, cut out a vital part of the story.
Sami Tammilehto made tough swings on the drums and cymbals, Brant Tilds performed with a fiery trumpet while Kristina Arakelyan provided dissonant chords on the piano, seizing the range of Terterian’s musical mastery. Yu-Wei Hu, on the other hand, hummed the songs of a lilting flute which was accompanied by the instrument of voices from a talented cast of young opera singers, underlining the intimacy between the rival lovers.
Bass-baritone Benjamin Beurklian-Carter and tenor Stephen Mills sung from the back on the right side while mezzo Anaïs Heghoyan and soprano Tanya Hurst were on the left. Together they created penetrative sounds that revealed the web of destruction stuck on the island. ‘Da da da da da’, ‘da dum, du dum’ and high-pitched notes from the mezzo and soprano, although uncomfortable in the beginning act, were performed on repeat with tense music which was best explored in the second act.
Dancers: Arpi Kojayan, Maria Khorozyan and Asya Ghalchyan were a visual splendour to the show. Dressed in white, they lightened the mood by bringing down the tension with soft, synchronised choreographies, reminding the audience of the romantic narrative, and the moon and the mountains that surrounded the girl and the officer.
In studio one, the performance became alive by the second half while the first didn’t waste time and headed straight into a midst of fierce instruments and violent voices, which may put off some audiences. That being said, those who are up for a challenge may enjoy it, this one isn’t for the faint-hearted though. Fire Ring has a lot of firepower and emotion, which requires mental preparation, yet there’s a satisfactory ending with an unexpected conclusion. Hold on if you can.