There are so many aspects and angles to this production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s rarely performed Le Coq d’Or that reaching a conclusion as to its overall standard is no easy task. The composer’s late masterpiece (and the music itself is one of the evening’s undoubted positives) can be seen as the precursor to such absurdist works as Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges and Shostakovich’s The Nose. Its presentation by the Moscow State Music Theatre for Young Audience named after Natalia Sats, however, makes it feel even more surreal than normal.
Rimsky-Korsakov wrote Le Coq d’Or (or rather Zolotoy petushok) in 1907, but it was immediately banned and not actually performed in Moscow until 1909, the year after his death. 2014 marks the centenary of its premiere in Paris, and the Moscow-based company have worked hard to create a production that emulates, though does not slavishly follow, what might have been staged then. In terms of the surviving evidence, perhaps the easiest thing to reconstruct were the designs of avant-garde artist Natalia Goncharova, and the costumes and sets are certainly exquisite. The latter, which epitomise her interest in primitivism at the time, do not obey the standard rules of perspective but have great aesthetic appeal, generating atmosphere through the skilful layering of images and colours. In direct contrast, there is no record of Michel Fokine’s choreography for this particular piece, although his wider output was considered if not necessarily followed as a part of the creation process.
Many Russian operas possess choreographic elements, but Le Coq d’Or was staged in Paris specifically as an opera-ballet, and this production divides the two elements in a manner that we may not be used to seeing. Every character is represented by a singer and dancer, with the former positioned at the front of the stage behind a music stand, as might be seen in a concert performance. The dancers then occupy the rest of the area playing out the drama with strong movements and gestures in an almost continuous swirl of activity. The closest equivalent to be seen on a London stage might be Kenneth MacMillan’s Song of the Earth, frequently performed by the Royal Ballet. There an alto and tenor sing from the sides of the stage while the dancers play out the emotions, although of course that is based on Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde rather than an opera.
Kasper Holten’s production of Eugene Onegin at the Royal Opera House last year split the characters of Onegin and Tatyana between a singer and dancer and this created problems by dividing emotions that needed to be presented coherently between two people. That particular problem does not occur here, precisely because the division is so complete and universal, but others do arise. The chief one is that for a dance performance (and that is what this essentially feels like) to steal us away, the musical foundation upon which it rests must be strong, and too often it is undermined by individual performances. Rooted in the Russian baritone tradition, the basic voice of Alexander Tsilinko as Tsar Dodon is highly engaging, but a frequent lack of focus, mainly in the upper register but elsewhere too, undermines the sound and hence overall effect. Similarly, as General Polkan Nikolay Petrenko’s bass feels just a little too rough and ready, even for the character of a battle-scarred warrior.
Several other performers fare significantly better. The silvery yet strident tones of soprano Zarina Samadova (Golden Cockerel) and mezzo soprano Natalia Eliseeva (the housekeeper, Amelfa) complement each other well, while Sergey Petrishchev and Denis Boldov are highly pleasing as Dodon’s sons. It is, however, two other soloists who truly stand out. The first is Petr Melentiev as the Astrologer whose particular tenor altino sound feels as intriguing as it is undoubtedly rare. The second is Oleysa Titenko whose vibrant and alluring soprano combines with a magnetic presence entirely befitting of the Queen of Shemakha. She makes every effort to imbue the Queen with character, even with the dancer there. Others also do this to an extent, and no-one is glued to their score, but the single moment in which it takes one person to turn a page can instantly break the magic. The singers do vary over the run and, given that they act as a foundation for so much else, any alteration to the line-up will almost certainly impact, in one way or another, on how the piece comes across.
The dancing itself creates quite a spectacle. It may not quite be what Fokine would have devised, but it is certainly effective in its own right. There is a boisterous element to it, but it requires no less skill to sustain the required energy levels than it does to execute the most virtuoso steps, and the almost continuous frenzy of activity is impeccably managed. Through large but precise movements Oleg Formin hands Dodon a certain comical pomposity, and slightly creepy callousness. Natalia Savelieva has an exceptional fluidity to her movement as the Queen of Shemakha and is as alluring as her singing counterpart, while in his swift, precise and yet seemingly boundless leaps Pavel Okunev puts in a stunning performance as the Cockerel. Slightly more disappointing is the fact that Russian opera ordinarily fuses music and movement by, for example, handing the chorus stylised and choreographed gestures. Here, by separating the singing and dancing entirely, this union is lost, leaving the chorus to do nothing other than stand in lines. This said, the set that rises behind them and continues the rows of people with paint, creates an interesting effect.
Artistic director Andris Liepa explained to the audience how the Moscow State Music Theatre for Young Audience named after Natalia Sats is a fully-fledged opera and ballet company, but also has a unique mission to programme events for children and family audiences. When this is understood it becomes easier to appreciate both the spirit and intentions of this production, although it is not merely for children.
The list of things to praise is substantial, and includes an amazing score (that you don’t get to hear every day), excellent conducting (courtesy of Alevtina Ioffe), fascinating sets and costumes, strong movement and several outstanding individual performances. On the other hand, partly due to difficulties in concept, these elements do not always come together so neatly as to create a coherent whole. Those with fairly fixed ideas as to what they want from a night at the opera may struggle the most with this production, but for anyone inclined, or simply willing, to enjoy an experience that feels completely different to the ‘norm’, the rewards could be very high.
Le Coq d’Or is being shown as a part of the Russian Seasons of the XXI Century Festival, which continues at the London Coliseum until 13 July. For full details of all events click here.