Nikolay RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Le Coq d’Or - opera in a prologue, three acts and an epilogue (1907)
King Dodon - Albert Schagidullin (bass-baritone)
Prince Guidon - Ilya Levinsky (tenor)
Prince Afron - Andrei Breus (baritone)
General Polkan - Ilya Bannik (bass)
Amelfa - Elena Manistina (mezzo)
Astrologer - Barry Banks (tenor)
Queen of Shemakha - Olga Trifonova (soprano)
Golden Cockerel - Yuri Maria Saenz (soprano)
Chorus of the Mariinsky Theatre
Orchestre de Paris/Kent Nagano
rec. Théâtre Musical de Paris - Châtelet, 2002
Video director: Thomas Grimm
Picture: NTSC/16:9, 1080i HD
Sound: PCM Stereo, dts-HD Master Audio 5.1 Surround
Region: 0 (worldwide)
Subtitles: English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Chinese
ARTHAUS MUSIK BLU-RAY 108 053 [108:00]
This colourful 2002 staging of Rimsky’s The Golden Cockerel - a Mariinsky-Châtelet co-production - has already been released on DVD, first by TDK (review) and then by Arthaus (review). By all accounts Ennosuke Ichikawa’s Kabuki-inspired retelling of a Russian fairy tale is a visual feast, so the shift to Blu-ray - with its superior sound and pictures - is most welcome. In the pit is the reliable Kent Nagano, whose Russian opera credentials were amply confirmed by his 1989 recording of Prokofiev’s Love for Three Oranges (Virgin Classics).
For those unfamiliar with the work it’s based on an 1834 Pushkin poem, The House of the Weathercock, a fantastic story in which the central figure - the weak-willed King Dodon - is unseam’d by all-too-human foibles. At the heart of it all is the eponymous - and magical - golden cockerel, provided by the Astrologer to warn the king of his approaching enemies. It soon confirms that the Queen of Shemakha has designs on his kingdom, and sets in train a series of bizarre events that lead to Dodon’s grisly end. It’s an odd but absorbing work - albeit musically and dramatically uneven - with Rimsky’s economical score matched by Vladimir Bel’sky’s pithy libretto.
Given all this talent, any soothsayer would agree the auguries are good; the candle-lit Prologue, in which the Astrologer speaks of a moral tale, certainly suggests as much. Barry Banks’s high tenor rings out with supreme confidence, his strangely compelling character firmly established from the start. As for the functional set it’s dominated by broad, shallow steps seen against a sky of ravishing shades of blue. This makes for a vivid contrast with the burnished golds and earth tones of Act 1, the lavishly detailed costumes of the king and his court rendered with startling clarity. Even more striking is the bird’s fine plumage, which adds to the vibrant visuals.
Like much of the opera the first Act is somewhat static, the characters mere cut-outs rather than flesh-and-blood creatures. The French orchestra plays well, but the sound - in stereo at least - isn’t as detailed or immediate as that on the best opera Blu-rays. Also, voices are inclined to wander, even when the singers are standing still. One isn’t aware of an audience, musicians or proscenium arch, and the smallish stage is prone to overcrowding. Dodon, his witless sons and their avian sentinel sing well enough, but they’re not terribly distinguished; and although sloth and sleep are the dominant images here, there’s a persistent lack of musical and dramatic thrust that bodes ill for the remaining Acts. True, it’s not Rimsky’s finest opera - that honour surely belongs to Kitezh - but it should have more spark than this.
Matters don’t improve much in Act 2 - probably the weakest of the three - in which Dodon finds his sons have killed each other on the field of battle; he also meets - and is seduced by - the Queen of Shemakha, sung by Olga Trifonova. Her steely tone and fast vibrato under pressure is something of a turn-off, and the low comedy is clunkily done. Even the visuals are less appealing, although the queen’s dramatic appearance against the red orb of the sun works well. Musically I was disappointed by Nagano’s rather sluggish pace, which undermines what is already a patchy piece. Perhaps it’s a measure of my deepening disaffection with this staging that the outlandish headgear - Trifonova’s huge, chandelier-like crown especially - began to seem faintly risible.
Happily the production comes to life in the short Act 3 and Epilogue, where Dodon returns with the Queen of Shemakha as his bride. The expectant chorus sings well, but the dancers are a real distraction. It’s the marvellous Barry Banks who brings real fire to this finale; he reminds the king of his Faustian pact - the cockerel in exchange for a wish - and demands to have the queen. In a fit of rage Dodon strikes and kills the Astrologer, the orchestra responding to this sudden dramatic spike with playing of apt intensity. In turn, the cockerel, in a flash of feathers, pecks Dodon to death. Banks’s dark, knowing summation brings the opera to a close and, for the first time, we are made aware of an audience.
This is a curious production, with some clever touches, but there are times when it’s visually too idiosyncratic for its own good. Regrettably that’s all too commonplace in opera today, and while it creates a momentary buzz it doesn’t tend to last the night. As for the mainly Russian cast they’re not as idiomatic as you might expect; indeed, it’s Banks who injects some much-needed energy and excitement into what is often a rather cool, detached performance.
Flashes of inspiration; otherwise disappointing.
Dan Morgan  

Flashes of inspiration but few sparks; disappointing.