It was like going on the journey from Kansas to the Land of Oz. After dank, dark drizzle on the streets outside, the scene inside the London Coliseum suddenly transformed into dazzling and vivid colour for this famous fairy-tale by Russian poet Alexander Pushkin. The stage came alight with glorious glimpses of olde worlde Russian folkloric scenes and characters: brightly painted sets with decorative patterns all over them, with multi-coloured costumes of purple, orange, red, green, turquoise, yellow for the shambling courtiers, simple, bearded and booted country bumpkins, and for pretty peasant girls in different patterned sarafans and traditional red boots. And there was the huge cut out wooden horse that the Tsar climbed onto as he set off for battle. The scenes came straight from the pages of beloved children’s folk-tales.

The original opera-ballet production of Le Coq d’Or saw only one season of life in the repertoire of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes when it was staged at the Paris Opera on the company’s last visit to Paris in 1914, just before the outbreak of the World War I. Before that, it had had a chequered beginning. Composer Rimsky-Korsakov created Le Coq d’Or as an opera in 1907. It tells of a doddery and dotty old Tsar, father of two equally dim-witted sons, who falls for the beautiful, seductive enemy from the East, with the obvious consequences. The opera was composed at the very time when Tsar Nicholas II’s popularity was at its lowest ebb, due to Russia’s catastrophic war with Japan. The obvious political satire in Rimsky Korsakov’s opera hit too close to the bone for the strict Russian censors and consequently was banned. The composer’s health suffered and he died before the opera was finally given its première in Moscow in 1909. However, five years later, the great impresario Sergei Diaghilev, in presenting Russia’s great art to the West, came up with the idea of presenting Le Coq d’Or as a combined opera-ballet.  While there is often a dance sequence in an opera, there have been very few productions that fused the two arts together on equal terms. Diaghilev approached the renowned choreographer, Michel Fokine (of Les Sylphides, The Firebird and Scheherezade fame), to create the choreography, and the production was a huge success. However, due to the number of people involved – full opera, ballet and orchestra – all originally taken to Paris, Diaghilev decided to present it only as a ballet after the original season. The ballet continued, and was later seen in the repertoire of the Ballets Russes de Basil company until the 1930s when the choreography was lost.

Enter Andris Liepa whose quest in life is to restore productions of the Ballets Russes. Son of the famous Bolshoi dancer, Maris Liepa, he was a great dancer himself in the 1980s and ‘90s, but has devoted himself to presenting Diaghilev Festivals worldwide. (He has however, just been named as the new director of Kremlin Ballet in Moscow.) This year marks the third year that Liepa has brought his Les Saisons Russes du XXI Siècle to London and The Golden Cockerel, which celebrates its centenary this year, is one of five works to be shown. Since nothing of Fokine’s choreography was left, he commissioned Gali Abaidulov to create new steps but in the style of Fokine, and, with Natalia Goncharova’s original sets beautifully and faithfully recreated by Viacheslav Okunev, the visual result is charming and atmospheric.

Some in the audience expected more flashy dancing à la Russe, but others however, were entranced by the combination of styles – a splash of classical ballet technique for the temptress Queen Shemakha and for the Golden Cockerel: feisty Russian folkloric dances for the peasant girls and men; lots of pantomime and comic acting – and all done with that special Russian confidence and enthusiasm. Tsar Dodon, danced by Oleg Fomin, with his enormous stomach, bushy red beard and comical activities, came over as a loveable but silly old man; there was little dancing for him other than a few wobbly turns. The Cockerel was danced by Pavel Okunev, a small energetic boy, darting here and there with a high jump and fast turns. When still, he would imitate a rooster with jerky head movements, tucked in wings and the occasional fluffing up of feathers. There was much ‘Drosslemeyer’ scurrying with his cape for Maksim Podshivalenko as the Astrologer, a magician who presents the Cockerel to the Tsar and then claims his vengeful reward at the end. But the star of the dancing team was Natalia Savelieva as the Queen, whose beautiful, sinuous body, draped with a chiffon scarf, moved with style and grace as she bewitched the old Tsar.

Their colourful actions mixed together with the excellent singers, dressed in black dinner suits and dresses, at the side of the stage. The only challenge for some of us was tipping the head back to look up at the surtitles while the performers commanded full attention at the same time!

Above all, it has to be remembered that this was a children’s production, prepared and staged at the Moscow State Music Theatre for Young Audience Named after Natalia Sats – the only classical music theatre in the world especially created, so Liepa explained, especially for children. And what better way to introduce the arts of opera and ballet in such a lively and enchanting way!


For a fuller review of the musical performance, see Mark Pullinger's review in the Opera section.