Political satire and fantastical fairy tale rolled into one, Le Coq d’or seems an opera tailor-made for Barrie Kosky. He rises to the challenge with dark wit spiced with surreal burlesque – a chorus line of dancing horse heads in stockings and suspenders, anyone? Classic Kosky. A co-production with Festival d’Aix (where it should have premiered last summer) and Komische Oper Berlin, its first performance took place last night at the Opéra de Lyon, thus becoming the final new production of Serge Dorny’s reign as Intendent before taking up the reins at Bayerische Staatsoper. 

Dmitry Ulyanov (Tsar Dodon) and Mischa Schelomianski (General Polkan)
© Jean-Louis Fernandez

Composed by Rimsky-Korsakov, based on Pushkin, the opera tells the fable of a lazy tsar who is paranoid about invasion but paralysed by inertia and indecision. The opera was a thinly veiled commentary on Tsar Nicholas II’s disastrous campaign in the Russo-Japanese War, Rimsky poking fun at a political leader. Unsurprisingly it fell foul of the censors and wasn’t premiered until a year after Rimsky’s death. 

Directors can take their pick of political leaders to parody. Boris Yeltsin, for example, was the obvious target in Dmitry Bertman’s staging at Deutsche Oper am Rhein. Kosky doesn’t seem to have a particular leader in mind, nor indeed does he set Rimsky’s opera in Russia. Instead, Tsar Dodon rules over a grassy wasteland dominated by a dead tree. Gloriously sung by Dmitry Ulyanov, his solid bass resonant, Dodon is a slob, dressed in grubby underwear, his golden crown the only symbol of kingship. Everyone, it seems, has designs on that crown, from his sons – oleaginous suits – to his vampish housekeeper, Amelfa. General Polkan is represented by a horse’s head (with a dance troupe as soldiers).

Andrei Popov (Astrologer), Dmitry Ulyanov (Tsar Dodon) and Wilfried Gonon (Golden Cockerel)
© Jean-Louis Fernandez

Manipulator-in-chief is the Astrologer, here sporting a Rimsky-esque long white beard and a sober black dress. It’s a stratospheric tenor role but Andrei Popov coped valiantly with its demands. When he scatters feathers from his handbag, the “golden cockerel” manifests itself atop the tree, a semi-naked man with metallic talons, its crowing sung off-stage by fine soprano Maria Nazarova. Dodon’s charger is a skeletal steed wheeled in by the Astrologer, a Heath Robinson contraption whose legs go through the motions of a gallop while he remains stationary – political commentary for you to apply to your incompetent leader of choice.

Margarita Nekrasova (Amelfa) and Dmitry Ulyanov (Tsar Dodon)
© Jean-Louis Fernandez

By Act 2, Dodon has remained rooted to the same spot, but the bodies of his two sons dangle from the tree, their heads rolling by his feet. The seductive Queen of Shemakha appears as a 1920s cabaret artist, with spangly frock and a headdress of white peacock feathers. Nina Minasyan was the vocal star of the performance, negotiating the chromatic contours of the Queen’s Hymn to the Sun with aplomb, her sensual singing nuanced with an exquisite pianissimo and secure top notes; with a voice like that, she could wrap any monarch round her little finger. Shemakha is accompanied by four half-naked dancers in glittery miniskirts who lead Dodon in a vaudeville dance routine – a typical Otto Pichler number – which has shades of  Wilson, Keppel and Betty’s Sand Dance.

Nina Minasyan (Queen of Shemakha)
© Jean-Louis Fernandez

Popov’s Astrologer returns in Act 3 in top hat and tails wanting to claim the queen as his reward, a demand that ends in him being butchered with a meat cleaver. But the blood-spattered Dodon then meets a swift end, pecked to death by the cockerel who then plucks out his eyeballs… and devours them! The decapitated Astrologer then returns to deliver the Epilogue, dangling his singing head by his side – a surreal conclusion to a surreal opera where, we are told, the only characters who are real are the Astrologer himself and the Queen.

Nina Minasyan (Queen of Shemakha) and Andrei Popov (Astrologer)
© Jean-Louis Fernandez

The masked chorus sang strongly in the brief scenes when they were permitted on stage. Rimsky’s kaleidoscopic score was given a suitably colourful performance – split note in the very first trumpet fanfare aside – from the Orchestre de l'Opéra de Lyon and its outstanding Music Director Daniele Rustioni, revelled in the swaggering marches and exotic orchestration. A triumphant evening for all concerned, and a very nice leaving gift for Serge Dorny.

This performance was reviewed from the Medici.tv video stream