Opera + Classical Music Reviews

The Golden Cockerel begins its ‘English Tour’ at the Hackney Empire

5 March 2022

A production that reveals strong performances and a penchant for the absurd.

The Golden Cockerel

Alys Mererid Roberts, Robert Lewis & Grant Doyle (Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)

When English Touring Opera decided to include Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel in its 2022 spring season, it could not have foreseen just how relevant it would feel. This is because its story concerns a Tsar whose own callousness and paranoia make him all too willing to embark on ill thought through and destructive wars.

Rimsky-Korsakov wrote Zolotoy petushok in 1907, but it was immediately banned and not actually performed in Moscow until 1909, the year after his death. It appeared in Paris in 1914 as Le Coq d’Or, by which title it is still often known today. Vladimir Belsky’s libretto derives from Pushkin’s 1834 poem The Tale of the Golden Cockerel, and the opera can be seen as the precursor to such absurdist works as Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges and Shostakovich’s The Nose.

The opera places a large emphasis on ballet and movement, and early stagings of the work tended to stress its modernist elements. For example, Diaghilev’s production in France in 1914 had the singers remain offstage while dancers provided all of the action. Not all approved of the approach, including Rimsky-Korsakov’s widow, but the production was considered a milestone and Stravinsky was to expand on the idea in his opera/ballet Renard (1917) and ballet Les Noces (1923), in which the singers stay unseen while mimes or dancers perform.

The Golden Cockerel

Alys Mererid Roberts (Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)

A production by the Moscow State Music Theatre for Young Audience named after Natalia Sats appeared at the London Coliseum in 2014, and this attempted to emulate, although not slavishly follow, what might have been staged exactly a century earlier in Paris. Every character was represented by a singer and dancer, although the former were positioned at the front of the stage and so not actually out of sight. The dancers then occupied the rest of the area, playing out the drama with strong movements and gestures and generating an almost continuous swirl of activity.

“…its story concerns a Tsar who… embarks on ill thought through and destructive wars”

Director James Conway has taken almost exactly the opposite approach here by employing no one exclusively to dance so that all of the movement is created by the singers. Although it is possible to lament not seeing first rate ballet when the opera is so conducive to including it, there are an enormous number of compensatory factors in the chosen approach. It means that no portrayal of a character is divided between two people, which can break up emotions that need to be presented coherently in order to be moving. It also allows the absurdism to be played out to the full by creating routines that positively speak of it. For example, when Tsar Dodon’s two sons lead the people off to war, they do not reveal virtuoso balletic movements but rather march carrying banners that double as weapons, obstacles they must clamber over and maypoles. As they proceed to dance around these they reveal just how oblivious they are to what they are really doing.

There is an inventiveness to the production so that the chorus remain on stage for long periods and really become the Tsar’s people. In this way, they fall asleep around him, employing comical actions as they do so, while the nanny Amelfa sings the Lullaby. Tsar Dodon rides off to war himself on a rocking horse brandishing a carpet beater, an object that proves to have several uses over the course of the evening, while he and the Tsaritsa of Shemakha ride this and a cannon instead of a carriage to their wedding. We do not actually see the related parade, but it proves just as effective for us only to witness the chorus’ reactions to it, and, given the words they use to describe it, it might have been distasteful to have tried to play it out visually.

Behind a beautifully painted front curtain, Neil Irish’s set sees a skeleton framed ‘cylinder’ occupy the centre of the stage. This houses the Tsar’s throne, which has an onion dome behind it and can be rolled out to create his bed, thus showing how it is difficult to separate Dodon’s power as Tsar from either the church or his own lazy character. The Golden Cockerel stands on a platform at its summit to observe the world and make her proclamations, while in Act II it is covered with material to form the tent from which the Tsaritsa of Shemakha intriguingly emerges.     

Gerry Cornelius conducts extremely well, while Grant Doyle with his secure baritone is an excellent Dodon. He is very clever at playing up the Tsar’s bumbling, doddery and lazy nature, even indulging in a dance routine that would rival David Brent’s, so that he feels quite loveable. The consequence is that we have to remind ourselves constantly that there is nothing sweet or innocent about his actions or attitude to ruling. Paula Sides, with her glistening soprano, is an exceptionally alluring Tsaritsa of Shemakha, while Edward Hawkins and Amy J Payne both have tremendous presence as General Polkan and Amelfa respectively. Alys Mererid Roberts is also excellent as the Golden Cockerel with her beautiful soprano being complemented by the right kick of the legs and flick of the head for the bird, while Robert Lewis is superb in the tenor altino role of the Astrologer. Finally, Thomas Elwin and Jerome Knox leave us lamenting the fact that the parts of Dodon’s sons, Princes Guidon and Aphron, are not bigger so that we can hear more of them.

The Golden Cockerel, and English Touring Opera’s other spring 2022 productions La bohème and the St John Passion, are touring England until 3 June. For full details of dates and venues visit the English Touring Opera website.

Iwan Davies conducts on 7 May, and Luci Briginshaw sings the Tsaritsa of Shemakha on 21 April and 10 May.

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