First, the history lesson - In 1904 the supine, rather dim and almost entirely ineffectual Tsar Nicholas II of Russia quite unnecessarily declared war on Japan. With inadequate naval forces in Pacific waters, he ordered his Baltic fleet to augment them. Sailing out into the North Sea, the ships quickly detected and fired on what they thought to be Japanese torpedo boats. In fact, however, they had merely attacked some British trawlers, so adding to the Tsar’s headaches with a major diplomatic crisis. The Russian ships then headed through the English Channel and down the French, Spanish and west African coasts before rounding the Cape of Good Hope, crossing the Indian and Pacific oceans and steaming north up the coast of China. Finally, after an epic 18,000 nautical miles (33,000 km) voyage, during which they had taken more than eight months at full speed to sail half way around the world, the Russians were easily crushed by the Japanese fleet in just eight hours fighting at the Battle of Tsushima. The utterly humiliated Tsar Nicholas was forced to ask for peace.
In 1907, just two years after that disaster, the political dissident Rimsky-Korsakov completed his final opera Le Coq d'Or (The Golden Cockerel), telling the story of a similarly incompetent and foolish monarch, the lethargic King Dodon. Although his dearest wish is to be able to rule his realm from the comfort of his bed, Dodon rouses himself to push the country into an unnecessary war with a neighbouring state and is thereupon roundly defeated for his pains. With so many less than subtle parallels to recent events in Russia, Rimsky’s opera was unsurprisingly banned by the authorities and had, in fact, to wait until the year after the composer’s death for its premiere.
But Le Coq d'Or doesn’t just showcase Rimsky’s political radicalism. A marked contrast to his 14 earlier operas, it is also strikingly forward-looking from a musical point of view. Indeed, the composer himself felt obliged to defend his finished score thus: “There you are, decadents, have a feast - But still and all, pornographic clowns, to decadence I have not descended!”
But many subsequent commentators have prefered to see what the composer feared might be seen as decadence as positive and progressive forward-thinking and they have been in little doubt of Le Coq d'Or’s seminal influence. Lord Harewood (Kobbé’s complete opera book [London, 1987 edn], p.766) suggested that its footprints are clearly visible in Stravinsky’s Le rossignol. Prokofiev’s The love for three oranges and Shostakovich’s The nose have been identified as two other direct descendants by Marina Frolova-Walker who has further argued that Le Coq d'Or’s score laid “the foundation for modernist opera in Russia and beyond” [The Cambridge companion to twentieth-century opera ed. Mervyn Cook [London, 2005], p.181.] In making that suggestion, she echoed Professor Richard Taruskin who had already pointed out that Rimsky’s music “advanced in spots to virtual atonality, making [it] a classic example of early modernism” [The new Grove book of operas ed. Stanley Sadie [London, 1996], p.268.]
Mention of the dreaded word atonality ought not to frighten viewers and listeners off, however, for even the briefest acquaintance with the attractive four-movement orchestral suite that Glazunov and Maximilian Steinberg put together after Rimsky’s death, will be enough to convince anyone that Le Coq d'Or is more Scheherazade than Schoenberg.
This new DVD records a visually very striking production given in Paris nearly a decade ago. Appropriately enough, given the Russo-Japanese war that had provided the composer with his inspiration, much of the design has a caricatured, generically “oriental” feel to it. With the conductor, stage director, producer, choreographer, stage designer and costume designer all hailing from Japan, I presume that many of the cultural references are actually Nipponese. Thus, for instance, the way that the king, his sons and courtiers have their faces painted stark white is very reminiscent of classical Noh theatre masks. But to my own untutored eyes many of the extremely lavish costumes look as if they could equally have come from Crouching tiger, hidden dragon or one of those outrageously over the top “Chin” historical sagas that fill the daily TV schedules in much of south east Asia.
The single set is spare, with just row upon row of steps ascending to the back, but that is quite enough to provide a variety of levels – literally from the king downwards - on which the characters can be placed. An occasional prop or piece of drapery suggests King Dodon’s pavilion or the Queen of Shemakha’s tent quite effectively and, with the eye ravished buy those over-the-top costumes, there is ceretainly plenty of visual interest on the atmospherically and beautifully lit stage.
As to the musical performance, I was generally impressed. Albert Schagidullin (King Dodon) sings idiomatically and with first class characterisation. Barry Banks (the astrologer), a singer more usually associated with Italian bel canto roles, bookends the opera and sings his difficult part – set very high in the tenor range – with aplomb. At first I did not especially warm to Olga Trifonova’s (the Queen of Shemakha’s) voice: for a supposed seductress it seemed rather grating. But perhaps she was having a bad night as it soon seemed to improve - or maybe I just got used to it.
Given that the Mariinsky Theatre’s chorus were brought to Paris for the production, there is no doubting the authenticity they bring to their powerful contributions. The musicians of the Orchestre de Paris under Kent Nagano may not have the score in their bones as Russian players would but still give a more than serviceable account of it.
This will, for many, be something of a curiosity – albeit an historically significant one - but with its appealing score and striking visuals there is, in truth, a great deal to enjoy on this DVD.