Rimsky-Korsakov: The Golden Cockerel

Diaghilev Festival

Coliseum, London, 8 July 2014 4.5 stars

The Golden CockerelRimsky-Korsakov did not live to see his last opera, The Golden Cockerel, performed. He completed the opera in 1907, died a year later in 1908 and then the first performance took place in the private Solodnikov Theatre in Moscow in the autumn of 1909. The Golden Cockerel libretto by Vladimir Nikolayevich Belsky was based on Pushkin’s short fable of the same title, which is also known as Le Coq d’Or outside Russia.
Rimsky-Korsakov had run into trouble with the Tsar’s censors who objected to those elements of the story which showed the tsar of the libretto in negative light. King Dodon of the story is no more objectionable or ridiculous than many kings in fairy tales but the tsarist censors of 1907 were very sensitive to any anti-tsarist sentiments so soon after the 1905 uprising against the authorities.
After the 1909 premier, The Golden Cockerel was not performed until 24 May 1914 when Diaghilev staged it as an opera-ballet at the Paris Opera during the ‘Saison Russe’. Almost a hundred years later, in July 2014, Andris Liepa and the Sats Moscow Theatre Company recreated Diagilev’s ‘Saison Russe’ at the London Coliseum. The six-day season, presented as the Diaghilev Festival, included The Golden Cockerel in its opera-ballet version and four ballets (namely Petrushka, Polovtsian Dances, Chopiniana and Scheherazade).
Strictly speaking, the company performing in the festival is called the Moscow State Music Theatre for Young Audience named after Natalia Sats. The company was founded by Sats in 1965 and is, as the long name suggests, focusing on educating young children, young adults and families. Apparently the world’s first and only professional state music theatre created specifically with such aims, it has a full-scale opera and ballet theatre with a symphony orchestra of over 100 musicians, 75 solo singers, a chorus of 32, and 60 ballet dancers. Their artistic director for the ‘Russian Seasons of the 21st Century’ is the above mentioned Andris Liepa, whose Maris Liepa Charitable Foundation promotes these Russian seasons.
In the 1914 Paris ‘Saison Russe’ the ballet scenes for The Golden Cockerel were choreographed by Michael Fokine and the costume/set design was created by Michael Larionov and Natalia Goncharova. In Fokine’s concept the dancers used mime as well as choreography to show the action which the singers sang about. For the ‘Russian Seasons of the 21st Century’ Liepa and his team have partially recreated the original sets and costumes. Glorious colours were on display and dancing/miming fairy-tale figures populated the middle of the large Coliseum stage. On the two sides (of the stage) the solo singers in modern concert attire and the chorus in fairy-tale like white robes told the story mostly in a concert performance. (At times the solo singers became part of the action on account of adding some acting to their singing). Fokine’s original choreography was lost but, using other surviving Fokine choreography, Gali Abaidulov has attempted to create Fokine-type movements and steps.
Astonishingly, the Sats company fielded several casts for all their productions during their six days in London. On 8th July the cast of The Golden Cockerel was top standard. Petr Melentiev (The Astrologer, in this staging evidently the Diaghilev figure) tackled the high tessitura of his tenor-altino part with extra-ordinary ease. Full mark is also due to coloratura soprano Olesya Titenko (Queen of Shemakha) who made her difficult vocal part dramatically credible. (It was unfortunate that, on her first entry, her pitching and that of the pizzicato string accompaniment were not entirely in agreement.) I can only praise all other singers, in particular Alexander Tsilinko (King Dodon), Natalia Eliseeva (Amalfa) and Zarina Samadova (The Golden Cockerel). But credit is also due to Sergey Petrishchev (Prince Guidon), Denis Boldov (Prince Afron) and Nikolay Petrenko (General Polkan). Among the excellent dancers it was Pavel Okunev (The Golden Cockerel) who grabbed my attention the most. His high, energetic but graceful jumps would have put any cockerel to shame. (Two days later Okunev excelled as the downtrodden rag-doll Petrushka as well as the heroic Polovtsian.) Oleg Fomin had the difficult task of miming/dancing the role of the old Tsar with some virtuoso virile steps; he delivered on both fronts. Natalia Savelieva (Queen of Shemakha) was graceful as a ballet dancer but also appropriately seductive as the Queen of the story.
The orchestra on this occasion fielded slightly reduced strings (ten first violins, eight second violins, six violas, five cellos and two basses) nevertheless with all other instruments (including harp, wind, brass and percussion) as specified by the composer. They were musical and strong, no doubt thanks to their conductor Alevtina Ioffe. Her full control was admirable (and provided another excellent example of ladies more than equal to the task).

Ioffe was also in charge for the ballet evening (11th July) consisting of three original Fokine choreographies. The Polovtsian Dances (from Borodin’s opera Prince Igor) was the most powerful imaginable. The final minutes with the strong, focused sound of the chorus (standing in the dress circle stage boxes) and the mesmerising virtuosity of the dancers made me understand why Napoleon, Hitler or anybody else have been unable to conquer Russia.  On stage we saw the spirit of Russia at its best, delivered with a high artistic standard.

By Agnes Kory