Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel is a pretty weird opera. It’s a satire on Nicholas II’s performance as tsar written just after the disastrous 1905 war with Japan and due to entirely unsurprising trouble with the censors it wasn’t performed in the composer’s life time. As you may imagine, a production of it by Barrie Kosky doesn’t make it any less weird. Kosky’s production was recorded at Opéra de Lyon in May 2021 and there are still some COVID artefacts. The chorus, for instance, is masked. But mostly it feels like a “normal” production.
To summarise the plot briefly, Tsar Dodon is lazy and ineffectual but his realm is threatened by enemies so he has to fight them. After receiving ridiculous advice from his two sons and General Polkan he’s visited by an astrologer who gives him a golden cockerel that will warn him whenever there is real danger while letting him sleep and have erotic dreams the rest of the time. War comes. He sends his sons off with the army where they are both killed. He discovers the “enemy” is the ravishing queen of Shemakha who seduces him while making him dance in front of the army in a ridiculous fashion. He returns to the capital with her as his bride. The astrologer demands the queen as a reward for supplying the golden cockerel. The tsar gets angry and kills him. The cockerel kills the tsar and the people lament.
In Kosky’s world the tsar is a rather ridiculous man in a grubby singlet and coronet. The army (or the boyars… not sure) are horses, as is Polkan. There are typical Kosky elements with the chorus used almost like an element of scenery and highly effective use of dance. There’s even a sock puppet and the tsar’s horse is a thing of wonder. It’s grimly grotesque too. The bodies of the two princes are not fond having stabbed each other but hang, headless, upside down from a tree with the heads lying in the roadway. Both the tsar and the queen play with the heads and/or the corpses. There’s lots of blood in Act 3 as well. It’s pretty effective and I suspect that a “straight” production would seem more heavy handed than the piece can handle so some ridiculousness is welcome.
Musically, it’s very Russian, rather brilliant, and a bit odd. When the tsar has something serious and portentous to say the music sounds almost liturgical. At other points there are somewhat incongruous dance rhythms and the queen gets music of a decidedly orientalist bent (it’s also really quite beautiful). Along the way there are some very complex harmonies and unusual orchestration. A most interesting score.
The show is anchored by really strong performances by Dmitry Ulyanov as Tsar Dodon and Nina Minasyan as the Queen of Shemakha. He is very funny as the ridiculous tsar especially in Act 2 when he’s trying to impress the queen. His is also a very strong vocal performance. She has a lovely coloratura soprano that shimmers its way through the series of seductive numbers in Act 2. She’s also a great mover which makes for an effective contrast with Dodon’s clumsiness. Andrey Popov is very good as the Astrologer. He manages the absurdly high tenor role rather well and he has a cool cameo in the Epilogue where it appears that his severed head is singing. The minor roles, all sung by Russian, or Russian trained, singers are all fine and the chorus is pretty good too. Daniele Rustioni gets a suitably Russian sound from the house orchestra.
François Roussillon directed the video and it’s very watchable with judicious shot selection and no gimmicks. Video quality on Blu-ray is excellent and at times it needs to be. There are some very dark scenes, especially in Act 2. Sound (DTS-HD-MA and PCM stereo) is also excellent; clear and atmospheric. There are no extras on the disk but, in addition to a synopsis and track listing, the booklet has excellent background information and a section that explains each character. Subtitle options are English, German, French, Korean and Japanese.
This is the only available video recording of this work. It’s probably not going to be to everybody’s taste but I thought Kosky’s approach was very much in the spirit of the thing and made for a highly enjoyable show.
Catalogue number: Naxos Blu-ray NBD0150V