"Adelaide Festival stands united against military aggression and war. Our hearts are breaking for the people of Ukraine and their families in Australia and elsewhere. Our Ukrainian and Russian artists are supporting each other and together every member of this company prays that this opera, forged through international collaboration, will be received by audiences as a symbol of hope.”

So write the directors of this year’s Festival, apropos their decision to continue with the performances of Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera, The Golden Cockerel. This is a tough call, but one with which I fully agree. All over Europe Russian artists are being banned from performing. In some cases they are supporters of Putin, but in most cases they have voiced their condemnation of the war in Ukraine. To condemn all Russians because their leader has invaded another country is to be tarred oneself with the vile brush of nationalism.

The plot of The Golden Cockerel centres around a possible attack on the land controlled by the Tsar by the armies of the Tsarina of a nieghbouring country to the east. The part of Tsar Dodon is sung by Pavlo Hunka, a Ukrainian bass-baritone. The part of the Tsarina is sung by Venera Gimadieva, a Russian soprano. This was all arranged months before there was even a threat of Russian invasion of Ukraine. It may be a case of life imitating art, but in that case life hasn’t read the script properly – in the opera the struggle is solved by marriage. In any case, the entire scenario couldn’t have been suddenly more appropriate.

In the first act Tsar Dodon, who only wants a peaceful retirement, feels threatened by the preparations for war by the Tsarina of “Chemaka”. Pavlo Hunka, who is used to playing buffoon roles commonly allocated by composers to bass-baritones, blends fear with comedy in his reception of the conflicting advice given him by his two sons. Dodon, like Putin, is supposed to be a chess player, (though he can’t be a very good one) and so the chorus of soldiers wear horse heads not only to represent cavalry but also chess knights. Barry Kosky, who directs the production, could be relied upon not to miss that opportunity. It was so striking that I had to look nervously round to see whether anyone in the audience had a Covid mask with a representation of a horse on it.

The third main character in the opera is the Astrologer, whom Dodon consults rather as King Saul did the Witch of Endor.  It is sung by Andrei Popov (another Russian), a tenor, but such a tenor as I have rarely heard before. It has the range of a counter-tenor, but the quality of the French Huat-contre, but is more powerful than either, and absolutely riveting.

The Astrologer offers Dodon a golden cockerel, a bird which can warn of imminent danger. This part was split by Kosky into the actor and the singer. The actor, Matthew Whittet, had to perch endlessly on a blasted tree, a feat every bit as difficult as the pyrotechnics of the members of Gravity and other myths. The singer, Samantha Clarke, was thereby liberated from any thespian demands and could concentrate on her limpid, calm soprano, which ideally captured the Cockerel’s detached involvement with the action.

The second act belongs to the Tsarina. Venera Gimadiev sings this part with a bewitchingly mellifluous sound, and it is worth seeing this production just to hear her sing. It is a scene of attempted seduction on the part of the Tsarina, who uses the most explicit language about her body to seduce the aging Tsar Dodon. He responds in a manner so clumsy that the scene seems like a deliberate parody of the second act of Parsifal. The music, too, is shallowly Tristan-esque – or, to borrow a comment Nicholas Cook made about Massanet’s Thaïs which we attended some years ago, it’s one part Wagner to nine parts water. Although the orchestration is truly beautiful, Rimsky-Korsakov cannot get away from the chromatic sliding motif which opens the work, which has to do duty both for the Orient (the Tsarina comes from the east, and Rimsky-Korsakov was part of group of composers who attempted to found a Russian style as opposed to the style of Western music) and for the sexualising of women. Indeed, the physiognomy of the opera’s very opening reminded me of the opening of Debussy’s L’après-midi d’un faune.

To think that this opera was written only 8 years before The Rite of Spring! And that Stravinsky had composition lessons from Rimsky-Korsakov!

The action of the third and final act of the opera makes that of operas noted for their absurd plots, such as Il Trovatore, everyday by comparison. The Tsar’s empire is conquered not by the military force of the Tsarina, but by her herself, in marriage to the doddering Dodon. The astrologer demands that he, not the Tsar, marry the Tsarina. Dodon kills him, and then the Cockerel kills DodonBarry Kosky, after a vain attempt to understand this act, said, defeated, “I can’t tell what this opera means.” Well, if this man, with masterly penetration and depiction of so many operas under his belt, says that, what hope is there for you and me?

The set is beautiful, though spare – a blasted heath. And there is an air of magic about the whole production, musical and theatrical, that made me enchanted to be there. It did occur to me that my lack of understanding might be due to the fact that my own musical experience is rooted in the very Western traditions that Rimsky-Korsakov was attempting to escape from, and that I cannot understand a certain part at least of the Russian aesthetic in general. There was in the audience a Russian who voiced her appreciation in no uncertain terms.

I doubt that this opera will ever make it into the standard repertoire. Yet congratulations to the Festival organisers for putting it on especially in the current circumstances.

Event details

2022 Adelaide Festival
The Golden Cockerel
by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

Director Barrie Kosky

Venue: Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre | King William Street, Adelaide SA
Dates: 4 – 9 March 2022
Tickets: $120 – $319
Bookings: www.adelaidefestival.com.au

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