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Nikolay RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Le Coq d'Or (The Golden Cockerel), Opera in Three Acts (1909) [1:58:00]
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)
Orchestre Symphonique et Chœurs de la Monnaie/Alain Altinoglu
Set direction and costume design – Laurent Pelly
Stage design – Barbara de Limburg
Filmed December 2016 at Palais La Monnaie, Brussels, Belgium
Video director: Thomas Grimm; Picture: NTSC/16:9, 1080i HD ; Region: 0
Sound: PCM Stereo, dts-HD Master Audio5.1 Surround
Subtitles: English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Chinese.
BEL AIR CLASSIQUES Blu-ray BAC447 [118 mins]

Rimsky Korsakov’s fifteen operas are still mostly rather neglected in the West, apart from an occasional production or revival, while they remain a staple in Russia. If any one of them is to become a fixture in the international repertoire, his Boris or Onegin, could it be The Golden Cockerel? Like them, it has its origins in Pushkin, in this case a fairy-tale poem from 1834. It also has some familiarity on disc and sometimes in concert, via the orchestral suite. Also its initial satirical target, the incompetence of Tsar Nicholas II and the humiliating military defeat by Japan in 1905, has hardly been the last example in history of misplaced bellicosity and misguided rulers. The real obstacle to its full appreciation is made clear by Marina Frolova-Walker in her essential book Russian Music and Nationalism (Yale University Press 2007), where she points out the opera’s subversion of Russian Nationalist opera traditions, even with (surely heretical) parodies of Mussorgsky’s Tsar Boris in the laments of the feeble Tsar Dodon. So a full understanding of what is going in the work requires a fuller knowledge of the history of Russian Nationalist opera and of its stylistic traits.

So can we not simply enjoy it as a fairy tale opera, and for some fine music and singing? Not quite, for its satirical edge comes from its overt absurdist stance, an ancestor of Shostakovich’s The Nose. The Astrologer who provides both the short Prologue and Epilogue, is even the same voice type as need for that later ‘the nose’ character itself. As Rimsky says in his “composer’s performance remarks” of 1907, “The part of the Astrologer is written for a voice seldom met with, that of tenor altino. It may however be entrusted to a lyric tenor possessing a strong falsetto, for the part is written in the extremely high register". Alexander Kravets delivers pretty well in this regard. It’s not the loveliest singing but that is hardly the point. Similarly, Rimsky says “The Golden Cockerel (role) demands a strong soprano or high mezzo-soprano voice” and Sheva Tehoval’s fine singing easily fits that bill too. But the main vocal honours here go to Venera Gimadieva as the Tzaritza of Shemakha, the cunning Queen who so easily outwits the witless Tsar Dodon. She enters only for the middle act, which she dominates, and has little do in Act III. But her part provides the typically Russian musical orientalism – accept that in another subversion the oriental characters win out over the ‘true Russians’ just as Japan had dominated Russia in the recent war. Gimadieva, in silvery costume and with silvery tone, despatches the demanding vocal part with aplomb and no hint of strain. Tsar Dodon himself has the largest role, and Pavlo Hunka impersonates this preposterous figure with conviction and impressive vocal command. The minor roles are well taken and overall for a live recording from stage performances this is very consistent vocally. The Belgian orchestra and chorus under Alain Altinoglu are also excellent, and the sound lets us hear plenty of the many intriguing details of the composer’s famously skilful scoring.

The single set is minimalist. After the Prologue – sung by the Astrologer with his head thrust out between the curtains – the curtain rises on what I take to be the top of a coal heap. Or that is one view of what the black rocky rounded floor of the stage represents. The Tsar’s white costume even has sooty borders from trailing on this surface. There are few props. An Imperial bed which the Tsar is usually reluctant to leave dominates the first and third acts (and acquires tank wheels for the latter). The middle act, in which Dodon fights and loses (or just concedes) a war against the Tsaritsa, has a large metal coil structure like a giant bedspring on its side, suggesting battlefield barbed wire perhaps. These stage pictures are not especially arresting to behold for two hours, but neither do they get in the way of the singers or of the work’s dramatic – or maybe its anti-dramatic – impetus. Costumes are vaguely late Imperial Russian, with absurdist touches such as the Tsar’s breastplate worn over his pyjamas suggesting he hopes soon to get the war over and return to bed. Laurent Pelly’s production has fun with the absurd side of things but also notes the dark undertones in its bitter satire. His own booklet note sums up this dual view of the work.

This well-filmed recent production of The Golden Cockerel from La Monnaie, recorded in December 2016, is a clear success as a valid interpretation of a work whose tone must be hard to get right. With its post-nationalism, its satirical backward references, and its role in stimulating some of the future work of his pupil Stravinsky, Rimsky’s final opera remains a challenge to stage convincingly.

In 2017 a film of the Mariinsky version under Gergiev appeared on that company’s own label, but our reviewers were lukewarm about it, especially the staging (review). A 2002 production for Paris under Kent Nagano on an Arthaus blu-ray was also given a mixed reception (review). But this Laurent Pelly production is my first encounter with the work, live or on film, and I shall return to it.

Roy Westbrook


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