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Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908)
The Golden Cockerel: opera in three acts (1909)
Libretto by Vladimir Belsky (1866-1946) based on a tale by Pushkin
Dmitry Ulyanov, bass – Tsar Dodon
Nina Minasyan, soprano – Queen of Shemakha
Andrey Popov, tenor – Astrologer
Margarita Nekrasova, mezzo-soprano – Amelfa
Mischa Schelomianski, bass – General Polkan
Andrey Zhilikhovsky, baritone – Prince Afron
Vasily Efimov, tenor – Prince Guidon
Maria Nazarova, soprano – Voice of the golden cockerel
Wilfried Gonon, actor – Performer of the golden cockerel
Dancers, Orchestra & Chorus of the Opéra National de Lyon/Daniele Rustioni
rec. live, 18 & 20 May 2021, Opéra National de Lyon, France
NAXOS NBD0150V Blu-ray [128]

Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel was his final opera, written in a surge of desire to criticize the misguided policies of Tsar Nicholas the second, and his government. Consequently the Russian censors would not approve its performance until a year after his death. The opera has kept barely a toehold on the repertory ever since. In a traditional production the fairy tale atmosphere is brilliantly augmented by the luscious score, which constantly evolves into the heady orientalism that was Rimsky-Korsakov’s great gift as a composer. Yet, despite being a well-crafted depiction of Pushkin’s fairy tale, there is always an impression that there is something more lurking behind the fairy tale.

Barrie Kosky has had his controversies as an opera director in the past. For this opera he has at last found a work in which his fertile mind can let loose without unduly compromising the essential nature of the opera. I am not usually one who finds much to appreciate in Regietheater; however, I have to admit that after seeing this Blu-ray the director has me utterly convinced with his thoughtful and quirky staging. He sets the opera in a unit set of a grassy wasteland; everything is very monochromatic and yet there is no denying the strange unearthly beauty of this marvellously constructed set. The staging evolves with prop and costume elements that seems to resemble a greyed-out vision of Hieronymus Bosch, including a mechanical horse for King Dodon that seems to have stepped out of Picasso’s Guernica. All of this would go for little if Kosky did not also excel in character delineation for the principal performers. The staging of the short third act becomes somewhat unravelled as Kosky does not seem to have any really strong idea about how to represent the crowd. He recovers at the end with a brilliant theatrical coup for the Astrologer’s final appearance. I did not have high hopes that I would find much to enjoy about this production so I am very pleased to report that it rises far above my expectations.

The role of King Dodon, a fool and a rogue, is a gift for any bass who attempts it, chiefly because the singer gets to act as childishly and boorishly as he wishes. Dimitry Ulyanov is an utterly winning Dodon. He is in powerfully firm voice and enters into the character with complete abandon. Nina Minasyan’s Queen is a vocal and visual sensation through and through. Her glorious caressing of the chromatic runs during the Hymn to the Sun makes her the finest Shemakhan Queen since the heyday of Beverly Sills. Andrey Popov’s Astrologer has been strikingly costumed by Victoria Behr to bear a strong resemblance to the composer. It is a pity then that role sits a notch too high for him to sing comfortably and he mostly delivers it with an un-ingratiating sound.

The smaller roles are most ably sung. Maria Nazarova’s Cockerel is beautifully firm-toned and the actor who portrays the cockerel (who has lost most of his feathers) has an appealingly sad-looking face in the Buster Keaton manner. Andrey Zhilikhovsky is an excellent Prince Afron , handsome of voice and appearance; he is definitely a singer to watch in the future. Margarita Nekrasova as Dodon’s nurse, Amelfa has a polished bronze tone which bears some vocal resemblance to the great Elena Obratzova. Sadly Mischa Schelomianski fails to make any real impression as General Polkan because of a difficult costume which thoroughly overwhelms the performer.

Daniel Rustioni really captures this glittering score’s shifts between bombast and sensuousness in a finely balanced reading. It is also a distinct pleasure after such a long time to see a conductor who is sporting a traditional white tie and tail tuxedo in the pit during a performance. The sound and camera work of this Blu-ray are excellent, particularly considering the rather boxy acoustic of the Lyons Opera house. The booklet contains a worthwhile article which analyses the sources of all of the opera’s characters.

I see that in a previous review of the DVD version of this release that my colleague Stephen Barber did not find as much to enjoy about the production as I have. I can only add that, having seen more traditional stagings of this opera, they often don’t represent the full scope of this opera. Barrie Kosky’s production, while not perfect in every respect, is a most inventive attempt to portray not only the fairy tale but also what drove Rimsky-Korsakov to compose this opera in the first place.

Mike Parr

Previous review (DVD): Stephen Barber (September 2022)

Production staff

Stage Director – Barrie Kosky
Set Designer – Rufus Didwiszus
Costume Designer – Victoria Behr
Lighting Designer – Franck Evin
Choreographer – Otto Pichler
Dramaturgy – Olaf A. Schmitt
Chorus Master – Roberto Balistreri
Film director – François Roussillon

Video details
Region code: A,B,C
Picture Format: 16:9
Sound Formats: PCM stereo and DTS 5.1 HD Master Audio
Sung in Russian (original language)
Subtitles: English, French, German, Japanese, Korean

Published: October 26, 2022

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