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Nikolay RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Le Coq d'Or (The Golden Cockerel), Opera in Three Acts (1909) [1:57:55]
Pavlo Hunka (Tzar Dodon); Alexey Dolgov (Tzarevich Guidon); Konstantin Shushakov (Tzarevich Afron); Alexander Vassiliev (General Polkan); Agnes Zwierko (Amelfa); Alexander Kravets (Astrologer); Venera Gimadieva (Tzaritza of Shemakha); Sheva Tehoval (Golden Cockerel – singer); Sarah Demarthe (Golden Cockerel – dancer), John Manning & Marcel Schmitz (Boyars); Marc Coulon (Man of the People)
Orchestre Symphonique et Chœurs de la Monnaie / Alain Altinoglu
Set direction and costume design: Laurent Pelly
Stage design: Barbara de Limburg
Video director: Thomas Grimm
rec. live December, 2016, Palais La Monnaie, Brussels, Belgium
Sound format: PCM Stereo 2.0 & DTS HD Master Audio 5.1
Picture format: BD25 1080i Full HD 16:9
Booklet notes in English, French and Dutch. Subtitles: English, French, Dutch, German, Spanish, Italian, Korean and Japanese.
BEL AIR CLASSIQUES Blu-ray BAC447 [118 mins]

This is the second recording of this work to be issued within in a year. Considering this opera’s history of general neglect outside of Russia, one must greet this new effort as a pleasant surprise—pleasant because The Golden Cockerel is such a fine piece all around, featuring a colorful and cleverly satiric Pushkin-based libretto, excellent vocal writing, many fine tunes, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s typically skilled orchestration. This opera should be better known, and we should happily welcome almost any new recording. To an extent it has been encumbered by its language over the years because a good many opera singers never learned Russian well enough to sing it. The Italian, German and French languages have fared better, of course, but things are now changing for the better.

The other recent recording I referenced above was a Mariinsky Theatre effort led by the indefatigable Valery Gergiev, and as expected it was quite fine. That production was also on video and focused both on the satiric and comic aspects of this opera, but with an imaginative fairy-tale take on them. More than a few children were in the audience for at least some of the performances comprising that recording and most, I am sure, found the experience entertaining.

Before going any further, let me give a brief summary of this opera’s story, as most operaphiles are likely unfamiliar with it. Tsar Dodon, always concerned about potential enemy attack against his kingdom, is greatly relieved when given a golden cockerel by the Astrologer, who tells the Tsar the bird will sense any military threat and immediately alert him. Grateful for the unusual and powerful present, Dodon informs the Astrologer he will grant him any wish. But the Astrologer delays choosing a wish for the moment. The cockerel soon crows to alert the Tsar of impending danger. He and his sons thus depart for war against the aggressor. In the ensuing battle the sons are killed but despite their loss the King falls under the spell of the irresistible Queen (or, here, Tsaritsa) of Shemakha. The Tsar and Tsaritsa return to his kingdom intending to marry. Soon after their arrival the Astrologer finally asks for his wish to be granted: he wants the Tsaritsa for himself. The King refuses to grant his wish but proposes other offers instead. The Astrologer stands his ground though, and the tension escalates, the Tsar eventually striking down the Astrologer. The cockerel then attacks the Tsar and he too is killed. But the Astrologer soon appears to deliver a twist on the story in the epilogue: what the viewer has just witnessed was mere fantasy. Only two characters are real, he and the Tsaritsa.

Here, in this new recording from Belgium on Bel-Air Classiques, stage director Laurent Pelly seems a bit more intent on comedy than on the other aspects in the story. Not that he neglects the satire: he typically uses symbolism in the sets and costuming to give the buffoonery and satire against the Tsar some bite. For instance, the Tsar’s bed is the palace centerpiece and it sits atop a slagheap, which soils the bottom of the Tsar’s pajamas and robe on contact. Speaking of his pajamas, he wears them throughout the opera, even under his battle armor in the Second Act. It is as if the happenings are merely a product of his dreams, which of course more or less fits in with the ending of the opera. In the Third Act the Tsar’s wedding bed sports tank wheels and tracks, apparently to suggest the Tsaritsa is among the spoils of war. There are all sorts of other little touches, including the depiction of the Tsar’s sons as dim-witted identical twins with very bright blond hair teased to stand upright.

Apart from a few absurdist exaggerations, most of the costuming is arguably of the early 20th century Tsarist era, though the Tsaritsa’s outfit and pointy headdress would not be out of place in a Star Trek or Doctor Who television episode. The Second Act sets feature a series of large coil-like objects that might be described as the ruins of a huge space-age silo. They also sit atop a slagheap; I am not sure what they are supposed to symbolize or satirize. Throughout the opera there is a somewhat drab appearance to the sets on stage in the emphasis on black and white contrasts. Relatively few other colors are noticeable.

As for the performances, it is the Tsaritsa of Venera Gimadieva that is most striking here. Her opening number is arguably the best known one from this opera, Hymn to the Sun, and she delivers a splendid performance of it. Her counterpart in the Mariinsky production was Aida Garifullina, who was also the standout in the cast. It would be hard to choose between these two singers, though I would give a very slight edge to Ms. Garifullina. The remainder of the cast in this Belgian production is generally fine, with Pavlo Hunka as Tsar Dodon quite effective both in his singing and dramatic skills. He has a fine sense for comic acting. While the singing role of the Cockerel is not a large one, it is well done by Sheva Tehoval, who shares duties here with Sarah Demarthe, who portrays the Cockerel in the dancing sequences, and brilliantly so.

The sound reproduction, picture clarity and camera work on this Blu-ray recording are first-rate. Alain Altinoglu draws such fine performances from the La Monnaie Symphony Orchestra and Chorus that I find it hard to choose between his work here and that of the more esteemed Gergiev in his Mariinsky recording. There is another version of The Golden Cockerel on video, the Arthaus Musik effort from Le Châtelet in Paris conducted by Kent Nagano. It has received many positive reviews, but also a few negative or mixed ones. I have not heard it and, because it dates from 2002, I suspect its video and sound qualities may not rise to the high level of these newer versions. So, what is the recommendation here? Either of the two newer renditions would be very satisfying for the buyer, though I have a slight preference for the Gergiev, mainly because of its more colorful production. Those who prefer a more overtly comical take on this opera would likely favor this Bel Air Classiques video. Your choice then.

Robert Cummings

Previous review: Roy Westbrook


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