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English Touring Opera: The Golden Cockerel

Rimsky-Korsakov’s delightful but rarely performed final opera, The Golden Cockerel, containing some of the most gorgeously melodious music you will ever hear, is being toured to theatres in England that do not often host opera during the next three months, as a companion piece to La Boheme.

ETO - Golden Cockerel - Credit Richard Hubert Smith
ETO – Golden Cockerel – Credit Richard Hubert Smith.

Based on an 1834 tale by Pushkin, it satirizes politicians and in particular the role of the Tsar, in Russian society of the time. In 1905 Rimsky had openly supported student protests in St Petersburg which were cruelly suppressed by the Tsar’s army, leading to Rimsky’s dismissal from the Conservatoire, where he was thought to be a subversive influence – nothing which happens in Russia is ever new!

The plot appears to take place in a mythical country where King Dodon (an aged incompetent Grant Doyle) spends all his time eating and sleeping as do his sons, but afraid of being invaded by enemies. Step forward the Astrologer, a very high “tenor altino” role (Robert Lewis in Rasputin-like costume and make-up) who gives Dodon a golden cockerel (Alys Mererid Roberts) guaranteed to crow whenever the country is in danger. The danger occurs in the person of the Queen of Shemakha (coloratura soprano Paula Sides in a stunning white gown appearing to imitate the last Tsarina Alexandra, “friend” of Rasputin).

The real ‘stars’of this production, though are the orchestra and chorus.

The orchestration has been “adapted” for a much smaller orchestra than the composer intended, but this has been done so skilfully that one rarely notices, especially as the playing is superb, the string section of 15 sounding rich and powerful but never overwhelming and the flute, oboe and clarinet, who have some horrendously challenging music to play and making it sound easy, as does the young male harpist. Conductor, Gerry Cornelius has the measure of this music and the orchestra responds well, especially in the big set pieces, such as the entry of King Dodon in Act Three.

The sixteen strong young chorus sound as if they have been singing together for years and are one of the best operatic choruses I have heard: warm tone, light and shade and perfect diction. It is a pity that the Chorus Master is not credited!

The fairy tale sets and costumes have been imaginatively designed by Neil Irish, the royal tent in Act Two being particularly worth mentioning. Like all good designs it is basically simple, and therefore works!

Rather fussy direction, especially in Act One, is by James Conway, but he always treats the members of the chorus as individuals and they always have something to do, even if, occasionally, it takes the focus from what we are supposed to be concentrating on! The production is at its best in Act Two when he lets us concentrate on Paula Sides singing “The Hymn to The Sun”, the centrepiece of the opera and in this production one of its many highlights.

The Golden Cockerel is sung in a rhyming couplet English version by Antal Dorati and James Gibson and there are surtitles so that none of the wit is missed. ETO have produced yet another magical evening at the theatre: just because you have not heard of or seen The Golden Cockerel before is no reason for not giving it a try at a theatre near you: it is very tuneful, amusing, well sung and played, plus it also gives one food for thought in the present state of the world.

Very strongly recommended.

5 Star Rating

Review by John Groves

Rimsky-Korsakov’s infrequently performed Russian satire, The Golden Cockerel. A send-up of corruption and sloth in government, the fairytale opera holds up a mirror to the last days of the Romanovs. “Despite its political edge, which meant it fell foul of the Tsarist censors, the music is daringly sensual and erotic at points,” Conway says. “For many, it’s an undiscovered joy of an opera.”

Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel
Saturday 5 March – Tuesday 31 May, 2022

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  • John Groves

    John Groves studied singing with Robert Easton and conducting with Clive Timms. He was lucky enough to act in the British premiere of a Strindberg play at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe more years ago than he cares to remember, as well as singing at the Royal Opera House - once! He taught drama and music at several schools, as well as examining the practical aspects of GCSE and A level drama for many years. For twenty five years he has conducted a brass band as well as living on one of the highest points of East Sussex surrounded by woodland, deer, foxes and badgers, with kites and buzzards flying overhead.

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