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Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
The Golden Cockerel
(1908) [122:48]
Tsar Dodon – Vladimir Feliauer (bass)
Queen of Shamakha – Aida Garifullina (soprano)
Astrologer – Andrei Popov (tenor altino)
Tsarevitch Gvidon – Andrei Ilyushinov (tenor)
Tsarevitch Afron – Vladimir Sulimsky (baritone)
General Polkan – Andrei Serov (bass)
Amelfa – Elena Vitman (contralto)
Anna Matison (stage director & costume designer)
Mariinsky Orchestra and Chorus/Valery Gergiev
Filmed live at Mariinsky-II, St Petersburg, 27 December 2014
Region Code: 0; Aspect Ratio 16:9; PCM Stereo
Content identical on each disc
MARIINSKY MAR0596 DVD/Blu-ray [119 mins]

I’m a big fan of Rimsky-Korsakov’s operas. They come from a different universe to that of Verdi, Wagner and even most Tchaikovsky, but they’re valid on their own terms; more than that, they’re bursting with melodies and the composer’s famously brilliant orchestration. However, the fantastical elements of them mean that often they work better in the mind’s eye than on the stage, and that’s something that really hits this film, which feels half-baked.

The Golden Cockerel is a fantastical tale of sorcery, magical ornaments and a Tsar whose brain becomes fuddled with love. It contains Gilbertian levels of satire, directed towards the Russian ruling class (Rimsky began it shortly after the failed 1905 revolution), and it’s crying out for someone to reveal its contemporary resonances. Anna Matison’s production begins promisingly with a spangly curtain (captured on the disc’s cover) that evokes the world of the mysterious astrologer, and a toytown skyline of onion domes that anchors you safely in the world of Russian legend and the mysterious past. Once the curtain rises, the outer acts take place in a giant toybox (or jewel box) to represent the Tsar’s court, and the second takes place in a beautifully evoked mystery landscape, together with magical trees, sticky mist, and a serpentine emblem that wouldn’t look out of place in Slytherin House. However, she has gone for a cartoonish, caricatured interpretation of the story and characters, demonstrated by, for example, the oversized head-dresses given to the Tsar and his sons, and every character over-hams their acting to a slightly embarrassing degree. It reminded me of the approach often taken by the French director Laurent Pelly, specifically his Robert le Diable at Covent Garden (review), and it suffers from similar effects of bathos and deflation.

It also doesn’t help that the camera work is poorly thought through and suffers from maddening cuts and swooshes that suggest a lack of adequate rehearsal time. The second act, in particular, has an infuriating series of extreme close-ups that serve no purpose other than to break the dramatic flow, and it made me wonder whether this had come from a live cinema relay that they hadn’t had time to run through effectively in advance. The sound set-up is rubbish, too: all you get is limited 2.0 stereo, which really won’t do in this day and age.

The singing is better, thankfully. Vladimir Feliauer makes a bluff, daft-as-a-brush Tsar Dodon, and Andrei Serov does a good job of depicting his general’s infuriated helplessness at the Tsar’s inept decisions. Andrei Popov does a good job with the Astrologer’s stratospheric (and, frankly, ridiculous) tessitura, while Elena Vitman makes a bluff characterful Amelfa. Rising star Aida Garifullina steals the show, however, as the Queen of Shamakha. Her voice is easily the most alluring on stage, and she uses it to great effect, sliding in and out of the queen’s sensuous melismas with all the assurances of a high-order temptress. She’s wonderful to look at and to listen to.

Orchestral and choral support is good, though half the time the chorus look baffled at what they’re required to do. Gergiev conducts in a straight-as-a-die way, though I find it difficult to hear him nowadays and not conclude that half of his mind is on something else.

So this Golden Cockerel will do but, then, you’re not exactly spoilt for choice if you want to explore this opera beyond the concert suite. Gergiev unaccountably left it out of his earlier Mariinsky/Kirov Rimsky-Korsakov series for Philips, and all the other recordings appear on niche Russian labels that can be hard to track down. The best I’ve heard is Dmitri Kitaenko’s Moscow recording for Melodiya (review) which on balance, probably sounds better. However, it has no libretto, so if you really need to know what’s going on then this BD will help with its subtitles. It’s only a shame you have to look at the staging at the same time!

Simon Thompson



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