Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov probably knew that a tale of an appallingly incompetent royal would still resonate with audiences almost 108 years after its Moscow premiere. On August 3, 2017, the Santa Fe Opera presented Rimsky-Korsakov’s seldom-performed “The Golden Cockerel,” marking its SFO debut. At the podium was conductor Emmanuel Villaume, paired with famed English director Paul Curran.
Years ago, when Santa Fe Opera sought to organize its 2017 season, surely the organizers couldn’t realize just how relatable it would be to American audiences today. And though the show itself features some unnervingly resonant political themes, “The Golden Cockerel” is mostly a slapstick comedy ― or else that’s how Curran sees it. Rimsky-Korsakov himself was a political advocate in the early-twentieth century, who fought for freedom of speech without the threat of capital punishment. In his program notes, Curran states that at its 1909 premiere, the allegories between the show and the nation were “too provocative” and that the work “banned instantly” by the government in question. However, the Tsar depicted in “The Golden Cockerel” isn’t necessarily more evil or radical than he is an idiot ― and it was this allegory that seemed to resonate the most with much of the Santa Fe audience.
The plot itself is told as a story within a story. The prologue introduces an Astronomer (English tenor Barry Banks), who tells the audiences of the precarious story about to take place. The action then jumps to the kingdom of Tsar Dodon (Tim Mix), an infantile ruler whose kingdom is threatened by invasion from the neighboring Shemakha. After a disappointing meeting with his confidant Polkan (Kevin Burdette) and the council as to how to resolve the imminent danger, the Astrologer reappears with a magic Golden Cockerel (sung from the pit by soprano Kasia Borowiec), which promises to warn the kingdom of an oncoming attack. Pleased, the Tsar offers the Astrologer a reward of his choosing. Knowing he can now sleep well that night, he is lullabied by his housekeeper Amelfa (contralto and SFO veteran Meredith Arwady) and eventually falls asleep.
Some of the best singing in Act I came from the company’s Apprentice Artists. Tenor Richard Smagur and baritone Jorge Espino, as Princes Guidon and Afron, nearly stole the act with their comedic timing. Both possess contrasting instruments, with Smagur’s sharp tenor differing from Espino’s luscious baritone. Unfortunately, this is the last we hear from them ― as the first act ends with the Cockerel sounding during the night, forcing the Tsar and his sons into battle, the Princes’ in turn kill each other. The Tsar, out-of-shape and clad in antique armor, is left to fight alone. Eventually, the Queen of Shemakha appears, using seduction to gain control of his kingdom. Attempting to impress the Queen, the Tsar beheads Polkan, and eventually, she agrees to marry the Tsar. They return to the kingdom, only for the Astrologer to demand to have the Queen of Shemakha as his reward for providing the Golden Cockerel. The Tsar refuses and defeats the Astrologer, only for the now furious Cockerel to peck the Tsar to death.
In a strange twist, the Epilogue reveals that the entire sequence of events was an illusion. Only he and the Queen are real and end the show abruptly. Perhaps this serves as reassurance that whatever political horrors occurring are, too, a delusion. The frenzied plot, however, is matched with a rather minimal set that relies on skateboard-ramp-like constructions and visual projections. Gary McCann’s vibrant and kitschy costumes, inspired by Russian matryoshka dolls, contain some of the most fabulous and original costumes of the season.
The quality of the production was matched by its musicianship. Conductor Emmanuel Villaume brought life to the infrequent score, with his intentions focused on its rhythmic challenges. Tim Mix, who performed the entire role of the Tsar, in a plush fat suit, showed skill as a singing actor. Venera Gimadieva, in what seems to be her signature role as the Queen of Shemakha, has impressive control of her instrument with an upper-register that gleams like jewelry. Contralto Meredith Arwady easily had the largest voice of the night, possessing a gargantuan contralto sound that doesn’t so much as ring but commands the ears.
Barry Banks stood out for his ethereal timbre ― it’s a shame his role doesn’t have more music. The same could be said for Kevin Burdette as General Polkan. However, some of the best singing of the evening came from the Apprentice Artists in their respective comprimario roles. In addition to Smagur and Espino, tenor Adam Bonanni and bass Simon Dyerequally were equally as talented were the Boyers.
Soprano Kasia Borowiec, another Apprentice, went unseen during the performance, yet appeared in an elegant gold sequined gown for the curtain call. Though much of the Cockerel’s music is stylized “cawing,” Borowiec made an impression with her strikingly rich sound, which cut easily through the back of the house.
“The Golden Cockerel” runs until August 18 at The Crosby Theatre.