English Touring Opera 2021 – 22 Review: The Golden Cockerel

A Strong Presentation Proves The Relevance Of Rimsky-Kosakov’s Final Opera For The 21st Century

By Alan Neilson
(Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)

Rimsky-Korsakov wrote 13 operas, yet outside his native Russia they have struggled to establish themselves, notching up only the occasional performance, with the possible exception of his final opera “The Golden Cockerel,” which has always managed to maintain a presence on the international stage.

Based on Pushkin’s 1834 fairy tale poem of the same name, Rimsky-Korsakov and his librettist Vladimir Belsky created a hard-hitting satire which attacked autocracy in general, and the then czar Nicolas II in particular. Given the political turmoil of the time, with the 1905 revolution still fresh in people’s minds along with Russia’s defeat in the Russo-Japanese war, it is hardly surprising that the censors banned the work. It was not until 1909, a year after the composer’s death that it was to receive its premier.

With its fairy tale cast of characters which includes an infantile, incompetent king, a mysterious queen, a talking bird and an astrologer, along with its exotic location, and colorful settings, “The Golden Cockerel” lends itself to array of interpretations and presentations, which is able to blend differing degrees of satire, fairy tale and the aesthetic opulence of the east, and can be set in any preferred era. Productions can, therefore, be amusing and light, or vicious, insightful and thought-provoking. They can be visually stunning with exotic, colorful costumes and a lavish staging or dark and mysterious.

The director’s room for maneuver is wide-ranging, despite Rimsky-Korsakov’s detailed instructions on how the opera was to be performed.

Conway’s Direction Successfully Draws Out The Satire

Director James Conway along with set and costume designer Neil Irish and lighting designer Rory Beaton created a thoroughly engaging staging which raced along. Every opportunity was taken to bring out the many possibilities for whimsy, which was aided in no small part by Antal Dorati and James Gibson’s amusing translation of the libretto, with its crisp, fluent rhyming couplets, which cleverly drew out the satire. The choreography was designed to add to the amusement, with the singers encouraged to ham up each scene to maximize the effect. Characters were roundly ridiculed.

King Dodon was depicted as lazy, stupid and immature who loved the idea of war, whilst his greedy, self-seeking sons Prince Guidon and Prince Aphron were more immature than the king himself, seeing war as a game in which they can achieve their own personal glory; certainly the actual suffering and death of others was of no consideration. On the other hand, the presence of Queen Shemakha, who is serious-minded and a more realistic character, was used to bring the necessary balance to the drama, by throwing the silly childish antics of the royal family into sharp relief.

Costumes were colorful and played to the stereotypical ideas we have of old Russia with plenty of heavy coats and ushanke fur hats on display, whilst the imperial family were caricatured. The king had colorful costumes replete with the imperial eagle emblazoned on his chest and a phony golden crown on his head, while the princes were dressed in childish sailor uniforms. The Queen of Shemakha, however, who hails from the East, was initially dressed in a resplendent exotic green costume which alluded to her Islamic origins, and presented without any sense of mockery.

Irish’s set designs were also impressive. They were aesthetically eye-catching, and the use of numerous symbolic references added depth to the social, political and cultural context of the presentation. Although the stage often appeared cluttered with its large array of props, the overall effect was a positive one.

Often, the stage had a comic book appearance, yet it never worked against the serious nature of the events: the horrors of war, and the miseries of an autocracy in the hands of a buffoon who is totally removed from the realities of his people were always clearly evident. In fact, the great strength of Conway’s presentation was his ability to highlight the satire while allowing the superficial fairy tale narrative to flow easily, and without forcing its darker undercurrents.

Conductor Gerry Cornelius oversaw the musical side of the production. Owing to the decision to use Iain Farrington’s reduced orchestral adaption, rather than Rimsky-Korsakov’s full score, there was an occasional noticeable loss of color, which was disappointing given the richness of the composer’s scoring.

However, that was the only negative. Cornelius produced a magical sound from the orchestra, which was sensitive to the dramatic interpretation and even managed to offset the effects of the smaller orchestra, so that the sound was never overly thin. He also created a pleasing balance between the orchestra and the stage.

Chorus member Aiden Edwards was called upon to cover the role of King Dodon for the indisposed Grant Doyle. It was a tough ask for the relatively inexperienced bass-baritone, but he stood up to the task well, and produced an excellent performance in which he dominated the role with his larger than life portrayal.

He strutted around the stage with all the confidence of a king, but of a king with little understanding: he was vacuous, lazy, superficial and self-indulgent, which he also impressively captured in his singing, neatly moulding the vocal line to capture the king’s overconfidence, misplaced arrogance and disinterest in anything outside his own minor concerns. Comedy seemed to come naturally, with his ridiculous attempt to match the queen’s erotic dance particularly well crafted.

A Solid Cast

The king’s two sons Prince Guidon and Prince Aphron were played by tenor Thomas Elwin and baritone Jerome Knox respectively. Always at each other’s side, they were presented as a pair, and acted and sang as such. Both successfully captured the immaturity and silliness of the roles making their appointments as heads of an army an absurd decision.

The Queen of Shemakha was played by soprano Paula Sides. She produced an accomplished performance, in which she successfully combined the mysterious, the erotic and the hard-headed. She possesses a steely, at times even brittle, voice with an interesting tone which she used with a high degree of agility. Her two arias from Act two “Hymn to the sun” and “Under my veil” are possibly the opera’s most immediately engaging, for which Sides produced beautifully crafted and alluring renditions which also allowed her to display her pleasing coloratura.

Mezzo-soprano Amy J Payne produced a fine performance in the role the nanny Amelfa, with an energetic and convincing reading. Her acting was lively and nuanced, while her intelligent use of coloring and emotional accenting brought depth to her vocal characterization.

Bass Edward Hawkins created a fine impression as General Polkan, yet another imbecilic army officer who was more impressed with his uniform and playing with his cannon than engaging with the reality.

Soprano Alys Mererid Roberts was cast in the role of the Golden Cockerel, which although it has very few lines, requires a strong performance to ensure the significance of the role was not lost. Aided by her fabulous yellow and red costume, she created a strong presence, in which her bright soprano and ability to mimic the bird could not but help capture the attention of the audience. Having her stab, rather than peck the king to death, cleverly brought home the serious side of what was happening.

Tenor Robert Lewis showed off his high tessitura to good effect with a strong vocal performance in the role of the astrologer. Looking every inch the part with his long cloak covered in gold stars, beard and disheveled hair, he finally reveals himself in the final scene. Conway has him remove his astrologer’s garb so that he stands before the audience in a monk’s habit, as Rasputin, and anchors Rimsky-Korsakov’s satire firmly in the court of Czar Nicholas II.

The chorus produced an energetic, animated, well-sung and well-acted performance, in which its members convincingly essayed a variety of roles.

It was a powerful production, presented in a hugely entertaining manner, with a clear message, a message as relevant today as it was when first performed over 100 years ago. It was, therefore, appropriate that ETO dedicated the performance to the people of the Ukraine, a people suffering from the actions of anti-democratic elements bent on achieving their own misguided aims and personal ambitions.


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