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Soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian combines some fascinating Armenian history and rare 18th-century music to make a heady mix in a new album of arias sung by the character of Cleopatra of Pontus

Cleopatra VII of Egypt has the mononymous Cleopatra market sewn up – if the name is used it usually refers to her. But obviously Egypt boasted six previous Queen Cleopatras. Other countries had them too, such as Armenia, which possessed its own fabled Queen Cleopatra (born 110 BC), wife of King Tigranes the Great, a man who through diplomacy and warfare managed to develop his kingdom so that it stretched from the Mediterranean in the West to the Caspian Sea in the East – a fact that will puzzle the more geographically-minded of readers as modern Armenia is landlocked. But it demonstrates the king’s immense power, as he became the biggest threat to the Roman Empire to its East.

In 94 BC Tigranes made a hugely advantageous match by marrying Cleopatra, the daughter of neighbouring monarch Mithridates VI of Pontus (known operatically through Mozart’s opera, Mitridate, re di Ponto, itself based on a play by Racine). Mithridates had become King of Pontus in 120 BC and set about building an empire that stretched right the way around the Black Sea. In a wonderfully operatic twist he had married his younger sister, Laodice: it seems to have been a family tradition, as Laodice’s maternal grandmother had already managed to marry three of her own brothers in succession, surely some sort of dubious record. (Therapists do say that the family that plays together stays together – though I am not convinced that they advocate quite such a drastic personal commitment to the idea.)

Cleopatra duly bore Tigranes three sons and two daughters and everything looked set to be happy ever after. The girls were married off to neighbouring rulers and alliances grew stronger. And at this point Cleopatra made a major error of judgement. Tigranes signed an alliance with Rome, and Cleopatra, under the influence of a mutinous Mithridates, persuaded her sons to betray their father. Everything went wrong, as these things do, and ended with the young men being captured and decapitated by Tigranes, and Cleopatra returning to her family in Pontus to end her days. That must have been an interesting conversation when she arrived. She disappears from history at that point, but Mithridates later committed suicide after defeat by Pompey and, according to Roman historian Cassius Dio, took poison, having first ‘removed his wives and children by poison’. It sounds as though Cleopatra had possibly leapt from frying pan to fire.

Tigranes has inspired many opera composers – over twenty – and Cleopatra’s arias from three of them are performed on a new disc by Armenian-Canadian soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian. One wonders why the queen was so popular operatically – she does seem to have played an incredibly poor hand. But for Vivaldi, Hasse and Gluck she proved a heroine for their operas, each called Il Tigrane – Vivaldi only wrote the middle act of his opera (the outer acts were by Micheli and Romaldi); Hasse reused Vivaldi’s libretto; and Gluck’s opera only survives in part.

Bayrakdarian’s soprano is fluent and nimble, but if you know her voice and haven’t heard her for a while be prepared for a surprise. Her tone has understandably developed considerably over the last twenty years, moving away from the light and generally bright soprano that made her name when she was a 1997 winner at the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and First Prize winner at Operalia in 2000. Her current timbre is curious and arresting. There is an occluded quality which I like very much, but may divide opinion – it is almost nasal, even congested in sound and dark in hue. The bottom of the voice is fearsome and she nails some astonishingly baritonal notes. If I heard the recording blind, not knowing the artist, I would assume a mezzo was singing. She can certainly steam ahead through some fiendishly tricky fiorature with great confidence – the Gluck aria ‘Nero turbo il ciel imbruna’ displays all of these attributes over eight minutes of vocal knitting, not least the tricky arpeggios that plumb down into chest voice and sail back up into head. She starts with the Hasse arias, which I find a bit sawing in their relentless string accompaniment, though his Press’all’onde is a good earworm tune. The Vivaldi is more characterful, the Gluck more orchestrally interesting. Constantine Orbelian conducts with vigour, which particularly suits the Hasse. The sound is crisp and very present though occasionally the voice recedes a little at forte, as though Bayrakdarian was encouraged to step back from the microphone.

Francis Muzzu Read the full review on Agora Classica

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