As part of my research at the University of California, Santa Barbara, I have undertaken extensive scholarly work on Baroque composers who have written operas about the Armenian King Tigranes II (140–55 BCE). There are at least twenty-four operas about him; most are lost. I have now gathered three operas—in entirety and in excerpts—by Hasse, Vivaldi and Gluck. All three bear the title Il Tigrane and all are based on the same libretto by Abate Francesco Silvani (1660–1728). While there are many wonderful arias and ensembles in these newly discovered operas, to give my project more focus—and more importantly, to make it fit my voice and temperament—I have concentrated on one of the main roles in the opera: Cleopatra.
No, not that Cleopatra (although I did record rare Baroque arias about Cleopatra of Egypt, released as Cleopatra on CBC Records in 2005). This project’s Cleopatra of Pontus (110–58 BCE) was the daughter of Mithridates VI, and became the Queen Consort of King Tigranes II, known as Tigranes the Great of Armenia. As an aside, when I was growing up and learning about Armenian history in school, we learned about Tigranes, of course, but historians omitted Cleopatra’s name and existence completely, instead concentrating on the accomplishments of her husband. In fact, Cleopatra of Pontus was instrumental in making Tigranes II the greatest king in Armenian history, by the alliance through marriage of two mighty nations: Armenia and Pontus. And that is how my project “The Other Cleopatra: Queen of Armenia” was born.
Cleopatra is viewed from the perspective of three prolific composers—Hasse, Vivaldi and Gluck—using the same text to animate very different artistic expressions. Vocally, the composers’ choice of tessitura for the role of Cleopatra sits differently, making for a diverse vocal showcase. The music of Hasse and Gluck in this project has never been recorded before, and the entire recording features eleven arias for Cleopatra and one overture, together for the first time. The Hasse and Vivaldi scores require string orchestra with cembalo/continuo (plus two horns in the Hasse Overture), while the Gluck arias add two horns and two oboes.