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CD: Crotchet

Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
The Golden Cockerel
(1908) [122:48]
Tsar Dodon – Yefgeny Nesterenko (bass)
Queen of Shamakha – Elena Ustinova (soprano)
Astrologer – Boris Tarkhov (tenor altino)
Tsarevitch Gvidon – Viacheslav Svistov (tenor)
Tsarevitch Afron – Vladimir Svistov (baritone)
Voyevode Polkan – Alexei Mochalov (bass)
Amelfa – Raisa Kotova (contralto)
All-Union Radio and Television Academic Grand Choir
Academic Symphony Orchestra of Moscow State Philharmonic/Dmitri Kitaenko
rec. no details provided. ADD
MELODIYA MELCD1001398 [57:42 + 65:06]
Experience Classicsonline

The Golden Cockerel was Rimsky’s final opera, in fact probably his final work, and he never lived to see it performed.  Like most of his operas it’s full of magic and fantasy, but the circumstances of its composition are grounded in earthy reality.  Rimsky lived through the momentous events of Russia’s almost-revolution in 1905.  He was appalled by the heavy-handed manner in which the government dealt with the events of Bloody Sunday and the subsequent unrest.  His students at the St. Petersburg Conservatory went on strike to protest and Rimsky wrote an open letter of support for them, for which he was promptly dismissed from his teaching post.  The Golden Cockerel is his response: he sets the story of an overly authoritarian but incompetent Tsar who makes appalling decisions which ruin his country and eventually himself too.
As the start of the opera Tsar Dodon is considering war and his advisers come up with a series of ever more preposterous methods of defending the kingdom.  A mysterious astrologer appears with a golden cockerel which he says will crow if there is danger and will point in the direction the danger will arrive from.  Dodon is delighted and offers the Astrologer anything his heart desires.  He goes off to war and discovers that his enemy is the beautiful and magical Queen of Shamakha.  He falls in love with her and marries her.  When he returns to the city, however, the Astrologer claims the Queen as his reward.  Dodon refuses and kills the Astrologer with his sceptre.  The cockerel then flies down and pecks him on the head and Dodon falls down dead.  There is also a prologue and epilogue wherein the Astrologer appears and warns the audience not to take the story too seriously as it is “a nightmare, dream, a pale ghost, emptiness.”
Consequently, the story is actually pretty grim, especially if compared to Rimsky’s other fairy tale operas like Sadko and Christmas Eve.  Rimsky’s astonishing orchestration makes it something special, though.  Musically the structure is straightforward enough: like Wagner’s Parsifal, Dodon’s court is associated with steady, diatonicism, while the magical world of the Astrologer and the Queen is sinuous and chromatic.  The opera’s opening sequence showcases this: the Prologue uses the orchestra impressionistically, and it isn’t a million miles away from Melisande’s forest, but then immediately afterwards we arrive in Dodon’s court where heavy chords and cadences dominate.  The two worlds collide in the final act when Dodon brings the queen home with disastrous consequences for himself.
There are very few recordings of this work currently available, and this Melodiya issue is very welcome.  The singing is good, and undeniably Russian, not least in the pronunciation.  Nesterenko will be familiar to many western listeners through his performances in Trovatore and Nabucco on DG.  This performance is clearly of a different order, though.  His voice is higher and less boomy than in his Verdi recordings, and his pronunciation resembles a drone rather than clear, western enunciation.  There’s nothing wrong with any of this, though, and of all people the Russians should know how to handle this music.  Either way, you soon accept it and stop noticing the difference.  Boris Tarkhov’s ghostly voice is just right for the Astrologer: the character’s other-worldly, spectral quality is captured well, not least through the bizarrely high range he is given.  The star of the recording, however, is Elena Ustinova’s Queen.  Rimsky’s chief method of differentiating her from the other characters is with the altitudinous top notes he gives her.  They really are quite extraordinary, and often it sounds like they are being made by a different instrument, not being sung.  Ustinova is given a little help by some judicious splicing (noticeable a couple of times) and the engineers provide a slightly artificial shine to her voice, but this only serves to heighten her characterisation.  It is very successful.  The lesser roles are fine, if nothing special.  Givdon sounds heroic, when he probably shouldn’t, and the housekeeper Amelfa fusses in a way that all operatic busybodies should.  The orchestral playing is very fine and shows Rimsky’s orchestration to its full, astonishing effect.  Kitaenko’s conducting is fine, if unremarkable.  The sound is impressive, if rather too resonant at times, and there are times when an echo feels a little intrusive, but this never gets in the way of the performance.
All in all, then, this is an impressive and enjoyable performance of a very worthy opera.  Be warned, though: Melodiya don’t make things easy for you.  There is no libretto in the set, just a minimal synopsis which isn’t even cued.  The opera is easy enough to follow, but this inevitably means you miss out on many of the subtleties, and it becomes particularly wearing during Dodon’s long duet with the Queen in Act 2 which, as half an hour without text, runs the risk of becoming tedious.
Simon Thompson


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