By Johanna Keller
SANTA FE, N.M. — The Santa Fe Opera audience laughed, probably in discomfited recognition, when a gargantuan golden throne rose out of the stage floor on which sat a flabby Tsar, who looked ridiculously tiny and ineffectual, the image of a leader whose character and skills are clearly no match for his political clout. There is no escaping the topicality and pointed political message of the company’s premiere production of Nicolay Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov’s last opera, The Golden Cockerel, which is undergoing a major revival. This is a fairy-tale about an undisciplined, inarticulate, and impulsive leader (with two buffoonish sons, no less) who wants to build a wall to keep out his enemies and ends up bringing about the downfall of his kingdom.
In 1907, when Rimsky wrote this opera, Imperial Romanov Russia was beginning to shatter. The incompetent Tsar Nicholas II’s tenuous grip on power was ever more threatened after the humiliating defeat in the Russo-Japanese war and the brutal slaughter of protesters on Bloody Sunday during the failed Revolution of 1905. Rather than focus too directly on current events, Rimsky set a dramatized fable based on tales from The Alhambra by Washington Irving, which the great poet Alexander Pushkin had translated into Russian verse and which Vladimir Belsky then fashioned into a libretto. But with lines that referred to “a new dawn…without the Tsar,” it is little wonder the imperial censors saw through the allegory and blocked its production. Rimsky died in 1908 without seeing it performed.
Start with the music — it is in glorious Technicolor. The Golden Cockerel opens with a trumpet flourish that will announce again and again the appearances of the eponymous magical bird. Its justifiably famous orchestrations provide nearly translucent textures at times that emphasize individual timbres such as the admirably bright playing of the trumpet section, led by Santa Fe Opera Orchestra principal Christopher Stingle, and the graceful cascades of harpist Grace Browning. This shimmering sound world was conducted by the talented Emmanuel Villaume with expansive tempos that never slowed down the action.
The production is as visually phantasmagorical as its score. Running through Aug. 18 in Santa Fe, the collaboration with the Dallas Opera features delightful designs by Gary McCann. To evoke the splendor of Russian Orientalism, McCann costumed the chorus of boyars (Russian nobility) in robes of extravagantly gilded patterns and tall gorlatnaya hats that signified the men’s social status. The set is a swooping skeletal ramp that subtly suggests Russian Futurism and Constructivism. On the ramp’s gauze surface, Driscoll Otto’s artful projections (including the image of the golden cockerel perched atop an onion dome) helped clarify the action, which was imaginatively directed by Paul Curran and lit to perfection by Paul Hackenmueller. The production is sung in Russian, with subtitles in English and Spanish.
Tsar Dodon is a lazy, blue-bearded fool who wants to rule his lands while lying in bed. Solidly sung and broadly played by baritone Tim Mix, he removes his royal robe to reveal his (padded) corpulence stuffed like a sausage into red long underwear. The chorus, nearly always an essential character in Russian opera, consists of sycophantic boyars who argue, dither, and sing gorgeously under the choral direction of Susanne Sheston. Meanwhile, the Tsar ignores the sensible advice of Commander Polkan, played as an upright and frustrated soldier by baritone Kevin Burdette, as well as the ministrations of the loyal Amelfa, sung by molasses-voiced contralto Meredith Arwady with devastating comic timing.
The solution to the Tsar’s problem is supplied by a mysterious Astrologer. This tenor altino role has stratospheric demands that include a full-throated high E, dazzlingly sung by Barry Banks, dressed in black and looking like an elfin version of Elton John. The Astrologer bestows on the Tsar a golden cockerel that will crow a warning (Kirikikuku!) when the country’s borders are threatened. Coloratura soprano Kasia Borowiec sings from offstage while the projected image of the bird appears; she achieves the almost unbelievable — an avian character that is impatient, sly, and in cahoots against the Tsar.
After the cockerel’s warning, the Tsar sends his two sons into battle. Richard Smagur makes Prince Guidon a blowhard who spits out his words and clings to one leg of Daddy’s throne when he should be marching off to war; Jorge Espino shapes Prince Afron into a fawning, nervous coward. The Tsar is hoisted up onto his big red hobby horse (facing toward its rear end) and rides off, only to find that his two feckless sons have killed one another on the battlefield.
The Queen of Shemakha appears in pistachio-green robes to deliver the opera’s hit tune, “Hymn to the Sun.” This is one of those challenging roles requiring a singer to emerge from the wings with a wham-bang and deliver a long scene of demanding music. Venera Gimadieva, a star at the Bolshoi who has played the Queen recently in Brussels and Madrid, unfortunately sang with painfully sagging pitch for the opening minutes, but once she warmed up, her powerful lyric coloratura was spot-on and sailed over the orchestra. In the striptease scene, when the Queen describes the delectable details of various parts of her anatomy and then disrobes (not completely), Gimadieva was supremely seductive.
The production’s very few missteps were the occasional too-obvious references to the current U.S. president, such as when the Tsar swung his scepter like a golf club, and when he appeared in the final reveal dressed in a red tie and baggy business suit, the Queen beside him in a white pantsuit. It was an unnecessary and over-determined detail. In the final scene, the cockerel turns against the Tsar and pecks him to death, while the Queen and Astrologer congratulate one another on the success of their plot. The courtiers hold their heads and writhe in horror at the betrayal of their motherland.
If the title, The Golden Cockerel, seems unfamiliar, it is because until recently the work was generally known as Le coq d’or. Diaghilev used the French name for a 1914 production in Paris and London that seated the singers at the sides of the stage while dancers conveyed the action. This ballet d’action, with choreography by Fokine, was brought to the Metropolitan Opera in 1918 and, when revived in 1925, music critic Ernest Newman, writing in The New York Post, argued against the ballet version and declared the operatic version “far richer in humor.” Indeed it is that dark strain of bitter Russian humor — wonderfully evoked in the Santa Fe production — that infuses this opera with its poignancy and relevance.
While the dance version with its French title continues to be popular — and was performed in repertory this season in New York by American Ballet Theatre — the rarer operatic form is undergoing a major revival. According to Operabase, since January 2015 The Golden Cockerel has had seven new productions and 83 performances in more than 10 cities, including in Madrid and Brussels.
Rimsky’s reputation is also being re-considered, his music newly appreciated not just for its orchestral colors, but for its architecture. For the past couple of decades, musicologist Richard Taruskin has been leading the charge to look beyond Rimsky’s luminous surfaces to assess the import of his subtle compositional innovations.
At the heart of the matter is an unusual scale of eight notes and a composition technique called octatonic construction that Rimsky developed in his music and introduced to his students, Stravinsky among them. To the ear, this octatonic scale destabilizes the comforting familiarity that major and minor scales provide, creating an enriched and pungent texture while still maintaining a sense of tonal center. It’s what gives The Golden Cockerel its exotic, shifting sound.
Perhaps this reassessment of Rimsky’s music will inspire future productions of his 14 other operas. One can hope! He lived in a period of rapid political and social change, and his music reflects the anxiety of an age of revolt, when bitter satire became a weapon of protest. As the Santa Fe Opera production makes clear, his opera speaks to us from an era very much like our own.
The Golden Cockerel continues through Aug. 18. For information and tickets, go here.
Johanna Keller writes for Opera Magazine, is the music critic for The Hopkins Review, and received the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for her essays in The New York Times. She teaches at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, where she founded the Goldring Arts Journalism Program.