The Golden Cockerel – Opera in three Acts to a libretto by Vladimir Belsky after a poem by Aleksandr Pushkin [sung in English to a translation by Antal Dorati and James Gibson; performed in a reduced orchestration by Iain Farrington]
The Astrologer – Robert Lewis
King Dodon – Grant Doyle
Prince Guidon – Thomas Elwin
Prince Aphron – Jerome Knox
General Polkan – Edward Hawkins
Amelfa – Amy J. Payne
Golden Cockerel – Alys Mererid Roberts
Queen of Shemakha – Paula Sides
English Touring Opera Chorus & Orchestra
James Cornelius – Director
Neil Irish – Set & Costume Designer
Rory Beaton – Lighting Designer
Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers
Reviewed: 5 March, 2022
Venue: Hackney Empire, London
Russia has just lost a war through political and military incompetence, prompting discontent with its overweening and undesired imperial ambitions amongst its population, as well as an attempted revolution. This is not (yet) that country in 2022 but the background against which Rimsky-Korsakov composed his final opera The Golden Cockerelfollowing Russia’s defeat by Japan in a war of 1905. He and Vladimir Belsky adapted an earlier satirical poem by Pushkin to create an operatic comment on those events. Needless to say they confronted not much less opposition than dissidents in today’s Russia do, as the composer was sacked from his position at the St Petersburg Conservatory for supporting its defiant students, and the opera was heavily censored before eventually being premiered in the year after Rimsky-Korsakov’s death.
English Touring Opera cannot have known that its new production of this work would open in the midst of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But its narrative fits the present situation with such uncanny precision that no more appropriate work could have been drawn from the existing repertoire to comment upon the outrage in eastern Europe, nor does James Conway’s production (set at the time of composition) need to contrive drawing any parallels in any sort of procrustean fashion. The Astrologer who delivers the prologue and epilogue (as in the original, to tell the audience that the drama is supposedly an old tale but has a relevant moral element to it, and that only he and the Queen are real in this illusion) is made to resemble Rasputin (that very name enough to draw a contemporary parallel). At the end (though not before) the Queen appears as the Empress Alexandra, but no particular connection seems to be drawn between Tsar Dodon and Nicholas II.
The jaunty English translation by Antal Dorati (the late conductor) and James Gibson, using rhyming couplets for the most part, imparts the skittish literary style of Gilbert and Sullivan to the work (though one might just as well recall Momus, the mocking figure of Classical drama, as utilised by John Dryden in the Secular Masque, telling Mars with disarming truth that “thy wars brought nothing about”). But that levity only underlines acerbically the apposite themes of the Tsar’s incompetence and vanity, the idiotic obsequiousness of his sons (like Tweedledum and Tweedledee in their sailor suits) and the boyars, and the contempt and ridicule of the ordinary citizens for the Tsar’s paranoid fear of encircling enemies and imminent attack. The equally apt joke in the libretto about the Tsar’s autocratic power when he asks “what is law?” is made here into a wider comment upon the futility of the United Nations, but otherwise very little from Rimsky Korsakov and Belsky’s original scenario, or the English translation have had to be adapted to draw attention to the work’s relevance today.
Grant Doyle characterises Tsar (rendered here as ‘King’) Dodon with mock gravity, leaning into his portentous words with comic deliberation, and wittily delivers his unromantic song and inept dance for the Queen. As the besieged sovereign of Shemakha (in present-day Azerbaijan) she is presented in rather an Orientalist fashion as she attempts to bewitch Dodon as an exotic Eastern seductress – dressed in green when she emerges from a tent crowned with a crescent moon, these aspects presumably both allude to the predominantly Islamic culture of that and other areas of the former Russian empire. PaceEdward Said, in this case then we might see this interpretation of her as part of the overall satire on the worldview of power-hungry Western imperial powers and the narratives they constructed about the peoples and regions they sought to subdue and colonise, rather than the production meaning to perpetuate an old-fashioned condescension of the East. References in the dialogue to Scheherazade and the 1001 Nights can also be seen in this light, but surely also as a nod to Rimsky-Korsakov’s own most famous composition. Paula Sides’s technically secure execution of the Queen’s florid vocal part is steely and brittle, tactfully mitigating against rendering the monarch as an ‘Oriental’ figure and projecting a musical individuality of her own, until she more deliberately performs some love music as a ruse to quell Dodon’s military aims in a seductive tone.
The high tenor part of the Astrologer issues like a clarion call in the Prologue and Epilogue especially, in Robert Lewis’ tense, urgent performance, which becomes more slyly persuasive as he engaged Dodon within the drama itself, by first offering the Golden Cockerel of the title to indicate when danger is nigh and later upsetting things when he requests the Queen in marriage as his reward. Alys Mererid Roberts creates an incisive impression as the Cockerel even though having little music to sing. Thomas Elwin and Jerome Knox are well matched as the princely brothers Guidon and Aphron in their keenly expressed ingenuousness whilst Edward Hawkins carries the part of the crusty old General Polkan with well-honed comic and musical deportment.
Gerry Cornelius conducts the score in a reduced orchestration by Iain Farrington, but is no less effective for that. Not only is the performance alert, it preserves much of the original music’s instrumental colour. But with its thinner textures (though never emaciated) it also often suggests the lightness of touch of operetta, like the translated libretto. Cast and orchestra sustain a lively dynamism as a result, which the ETO Chorus – variously depicting the people, boyars, guards and soldiers, and female slaves – carry over into their contributions to the musical fairy tale, astutely differentiating between their contrasting guises.
As Russian culture and history come under close scrutiny once again, alongside its politics, this is a welcome reminder that one of its greatest and most original musical exponents in the Tsarist period already thought critically and deeply about his country’s military excesses and enormities. However the tragedy in Ukraine unfolds, this opera stands against the present actions of the Russian government as a small sign of hope and an act of opposition, reminding us that Rimsky-Korsakov must be seen as part of the common artistic currency of humankind. There are precious few opportunities in this country to see that composer’s inventive, colourful operas staged in any event, so ETO is to be applauded for proceeding to provide such an opportunity now, and instilling the additional hope that his legacy will not be needlessly diminished as a result of Russian wars now which would have appalled him.
Further performances to May 30 at various venues around England.