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Nicolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Le Coq d’Or [1909]
King Dodon - Alexsei Korolyov (bass)
Prince Gvidon - Yuri Yelnikov (tenor)
Prince Afron - Alexander Polyakov (baritone)
General Polkan - Leonid Ktitorov (bass)
Amelfa, the Royal Housekeeper - Antonina Kleshcheva (contralto)
Astrologer - Gennadi Pishchayev (tenor)
The Queen of Shemakha - Klara Kadinskaya (soprano)
The Golden Cockerel - Nina Polyakova (soprano)
The Grand Choir and Symphony Orchestra of All-Union Radio and Television/Alexei Kovalyov & Yevgeni Akulov
rec. 1956/1962(?); “re-recorded 1968”, Moscow. ADD
MELODIYA MELCD1002331 [48:05 +69:06]

Rimsky-Korsakov’s last opera, The Golden Cockerel, was premiered in Moscow in 1909 after his death and up until World War II was usually performed outside Russia in French as Le coq d’or. That nomenclature has stuck despite the fact that since then it has invariably been given in either the original Russian or an English translation; all the available recordings are in one of those two languages with the exception of a sole, live radio broadcast in Italian from RAI Roma in 1961 starring Boris Christoff, which I have not heard.

There are only three studio recordings of which this is the first. The second, from 1988 and conducted by Svetlanov has long been unavailable and is quite hard to find affordably; I have not heard that, either. That leaves the 1985 Bulgarian recording on the Capriccio label made in good digital sound in Sofia and conducted by Dimiter Manolov. There is, however, also the live 2002 San Francisco Kabuki production on DVD conducted by Kent Nagano, with Barry Banks as a stand-out Astrologer, which is highly recommendable but not available on CD. Otherwise, many will first have encountered this opera in the 1971 New York City Opera live recording in English, starring Beverly Sills and Norman Treigle, conducted by Julius Rudel. Unfortunately, the sound there is very average; I quote from my own Amazon review written some years ago: “[T]his 2-CD set is the product of a poor transfer from LP's (complete with pops and clicks) in turn taken from a home stereo recording on tape; balances and volume levels are inconsistent and erratic, and the sound itself is mushy. There is a lot of coughing, some of it very inconsiderate and very close to the mike.”

The exact recording date of this Melodiya re-issue is unclear: the CLOR opera discography online database has it as “1962(?)”, other sources say 1956 and the booklet states, “Re-recorded in 1968”; I don’t really know what all that means but a re-mastering engineer is listed and this is clearly in good, narrow stereo. Further confusion arises from the listing of two conductors, Yevgeny Akulov and Alexei Kovalyov, which presumably validates the inference that the recording was made in two or more stages. A final conundrum is that earlier issues credit the choir and orchestra as the “Moscow Radio Soloists, Choir and Opera Symphony Orchestra”, whereas this re-release calls them “The Grand Choir and Symphony Orchestra of All-Union Radio and Television”; perhaps those are alternative names for the same things. Beyond that, all we know for sure is that this production was made for radio broadcast, so we can at least state that we are dealing with a Soviet recording made in Moscow, attractively repackaged by Melodiya with trilingual notes, synopsis and track/cast listings but no libretto.

Ostensibly a fairy tale, The Golden Cockerel is of course also a biting covert satire upon Russia’s disastrous war on Japan, the sybaritic barbarity of Tsarist rule and the stupidity of Tsar Nicholas II himself, hence there was no bar to its performance in Soviet Russia. However, as is so often the case with his operas, Rimsky is far more absorbed by the exotic musical-narrative potential of the tale than by psychological character development, so much of the time this odd opera is somewhat reminiscent of a pantomime or a series of tableaux.

After the exotic “eastern” melismata of the overture, the score itself is often quite percussive, with an enhanced battery of instruments comprising timpani, triangle, snare drum, bass drum, tambourine, glockenspiel, cymbals and tam-tam and offers a combination of naive, folksy charm and complex, colourful orchestration through Rimsky’s customary generous provision of a ballet, dances, choruses and much pageantry, especially in the rousing opening to Act 3, which has more than a touch pf the crowd scenes from Boris Godunov about it. This is often entertaining but typically rather static in nature with set-piece arias reminiscent of Sadko; it is almost as if Rimsky steadfastly avoids conforming to the conventional rules for constructing a successful opera. The main soprano role is odd in that the Queen of Shemakha does not appear in the First Act and sings only a few brief phrases in Act 3, so must deliver all the coloratura thrills in Act 2. Delaying the entrance of the heroine is hardly an uncommon operatic device; there is a considerable wait before the first appearance of Butterfly, Turandot and Norma – but at least they see us through to a climactic end. I am told it helps to be Russian if one is to accept Rimsky’s idiosyncrasies and revel in his idiom.

In any case, the Queen has some extraordinary music and her appearance is the excuse for the return of the “exotic” mode we first heard in the overture. Klara Kadinskaya is agile and adept if rather shrill, as was common among sopranos of that era, and although she has a top E flat and even a sustained E, they are squealed. Sills, live on the Gala label, is also rather hard of tone but her virtuosity is compelling. Elena Stoyanova on the Capriccio set is no slouch either; her singing is mightily steady, pure and impressive and her soprano fuller than Kadinskaya’s.

The cast here is in general very good, with typically characterful Russian voices, and a suitably fruity buffo bass in veteran Alexsei Korolyov who huffs, puffs and yells a bit as Tsar Dodon; Nikolai Stoilov for Manolov has an even richer instrument and a broader way with the comedy and both are vocally superior to Norman Treigle. Antonina Kleshcheva as the Royal Housekeeper has a trenchant contralto of the kind now almost extinct. Alexander Polyakov as Prince Afron has a resonant baritone with an attractive fast vibrato. In comparison with the Capriccio recording, there is not much to choose between the two light, agile, piercing Slavic tenors who tackle the near impossible role of the Astrologer with its sustained high tessitura, top Ds and even an E natural, here securely hit square on in falsetto.

The conducting, choral singing and playing here are all excellent; both conductors, like Rudel in New York, sustain momentum with more energy and attack than Manolov, who is rather leisurely in comparison. As such, its vigour and authenticity make this probably the most recommendable version of this rarely performed opera overall, although those already in possession of the Capriccio recording need not rush to acquire it as on balance there is not much to choose between them.

Ralph Moore



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