Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) is one of those composers remembered for just a handful of pieces. Actually, in Rimsky-Korsakov’s case it is even less than a handful. There is Scheherazade, of course, following by Capriccio Espagnol—both of them orchestral showpieces of the first order—and, oh yes, let’s not forget the annoying “Flight of the Bumblebee,” less annoying, perhaps; indeed, outrageously funny to my ears—in the Spike Jones arrangement. Actually, said Bumblebee began its life not as a novelty item but as an orchestral interlude from Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan.
And that brings us to the subject of this week’s review. Rimsky-Korsakov wrote no fewer than 15 operas, most of them totally unknown outside Russia. The one exception is The Golden Cockerel, a vehicle for Beverly Sills in her prime at the New York City Opera, and most recently produced this summer by the Santa Fe Opera. Now we have a DVD of a pretty imaginative production by the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg.
According to Rimsky-Korsakov’s librettist, Vladimir Belsky, The Golden Cockerel is “a tragi-comedy showing the fatal results of human passion and weakness.” The original story comes from American author Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra which he wrote while living in Spain’s famous Moorish palace in 1828. A few years later Alexander Pushkin turned the story into a Russian folk tale in the form of a poem. Belsky’s libretto is based on Pushkin’s version and sets the story in “a certain far-off tsardom.” But beneath the veneer of a fairy tale about simple Russian provincials there lies a pretty powerful attack on Tsar Nikolay II and his regime. Revolutionary fervor was building in 1907 when the opera was written and at the time it could clearly be seen as a satire about the war-mongering and foolishness of the current rulers. No wonder it was banned and not performed until after Rimsky-Korsakov’s death.
The present Mariinsky production was entrusted to Russian filmmaker Anna Matison. Her work on The Golden Cockerel in 2014 was her company debut. She did the stage direction, sets and costumes and, given her experience in film, she also supervised the video. It is a colourful and imaginative staging. The enormous hats worn by Tsar Dodon and his boyars are wonderfully absurd. So too the giant box which opens up to reveal the main room of the palace.
Rimsky-Korsakov had the brilliant idea of making the astrologer a very high tenor, or what he calls a tenor altino. This extreme vocal range makes the character a peculiarly alien figure as befits the story. It is the astrologer who gives the Tsar the magic golden cockerel and sets the plot in motion. And when at the end the Tsar and his entire kingdom are destroyed the astrologer lives on to proclaim the moral of the story:
So that’s how the story went
But no matter how bitter
The grisly end
Banish all thoughts of dismay
Bass Vladimir Feliauer as Tsar Dodon gives a fine account of his role as the bumbling ruler, and soprano Aida Garifullina as the Queen of Shemakha is wonderful. Tsar Dodon had launched an invasion of her territory to bring her to heel but when he actually sees the beautiful Tsaritsa he falls in love with and decides to marry her. Garifullina in a long blond wig and abbreviated bright red dress looks and sings the demanding coloratura part to near-perfection, and, as she should, she totally dominates Act Two.
While there are no memorable arias in The Golden Cockerel the score is lively and inventive and offers plenty of examples of Rimsky-Korsakov’s great skills as an orchestrator. Gergiev and his Mariinsky Orchestra offer sparkling playing.
It is good to see the Mariinsky Theatre producing CDs and DVDs on its own label, especially recordings of operas that are seldom produced outside Russia. However, the booklets which accompany these recordings are often less than ideal. For example, the current recording of The Golden Cockerel has a cast list, a plot summary, a few photos and a Gergiev bio but no information whatsoever about the other performers or background on the opera.
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