On one level, Le Coq d’Or, Rimsky-Korsakov’s final opera, is a simple fairy tale. However, you don’t need to dig far to discover a biting satire: a doddery old king who wishes to ‘reign from his bed’ and has a magical bird which can warn him of impending danger from the east. Substitute Nicholas II for King Dodon and bear in mind Russia’s humiliating defeat in the Russo-Japanese War – not to mention the tsar’s desperate attempts to keep his regime from crumbling post-1905 revolution – and one can understand the censor’s objections to Rimsky’s score. A century on from Diaghilev’s opera-ballet version, originally choreographed by Fokine, any sense of satire was entirely absent in this presentation by Les Saisons Russes du XXI Siècle at London’s Coliseum, which lay closer to fairy-tale pantomime.
Rimsky-Korsakov had died in 1908, a year before the opera’s première at Moscow's Solodovnikov Theatre. One of his final letters suggested Paris as a likelier candidate to stage the first performance, as he had refused to bow to the censor. Those censorial objections extended to Diaghilev’s version.
The idea of opera-ballet is nothing new, although there have been few successful combinations since Rameau. There is a precedent in Rimsky’s output, however, in Mlada, an exotic, fantastical score from 1890. This performance of Le Coq d’Or by Les Saisons Russes took the form of ballet, with the opera’s score given by singers (in concert dress) mostly confined to music stands at either side of the stage. The main exception to this was the mysterious Astrologer, whose Prologue sets the scene. Petr Melentiev was suitably dressed up as Diaghilev himself, to manipulate events on stage. During the Queen of Shemakha’s seduction of Dodon in Act II, the dancers left the singers to take centre stage, which they did to simple, yet telling, effect; it was arguably the most telling dramatic point of the evening.
Vyacheslav Okunev's sets, recreating those of Natalia Goncharova, are stylish and colourful. Although Andris Liepa was at pains to point out that this wasn’t a reconstruction of the 1914 version (Fokine’s choreography having been lost) it certainly had an authentic, ‘dated’ feel about. Only the Queen of Shemakha and the golden cockerel had anything approaching ‘classical ballet’ style to dance, while there was a strong folk element. Dodon himself bumbled around in a style not dissimilar to the Chief Eunuch in Fokine’s choreography to Scheherazade (another adaptation which, like Le Coq d'Or, failed to meet with the approval of Rimsky’s widow).
The costuming was bright, but lacked the lavish splendour such a production truly calls for. Cotton wool beards and cardboard warriors and horses don’t really spell opulence. As spectacle, it had colour and bustle, but dramatically, the presentation lacked the layer of satire present in the original opera.
Musically, this was a very fine performance. The most prominent orchestral motif is the strident trumpet call imitating the cockerel’s crowing. It needs to blaze. Unfortunately, the first trumpet's entry suffered a split in the very first call and was less than perfect throughout the evening. The rest of the orchestra, however, played Rimsky’s kaleidoscopic score rather wonderfully, purposefully conducted by the Moscow State Music Theatre’s chief conductor, Alevtina Ioffe, who never allowed the pace to slacken. Clarinets coiled themselves around the chromatic arabesques and the strings warmly phrased their seductive melodies. Dodon’s wedding procession glittered in brassy, percussive splendour.
Alexander Tsilinko’s Dodon was seriously impressive. If his bass isn’t as inky black as Paata Burchuladze or Yevgeny Nesterenko (both notable exponents of the role), he had all the bluff good humour required. Zarina Samadova’s golden cockerel crowed effectively. Melentiev’s Astrologer was remarkable. Rimsky calls for a tenor altino – a tenor most comfortable negotiating the high notes, but in full voice, not resorting to falsetto. Melentiev accomplished this most thrillingly, especially in dispatching a top E when the Astrologer decides to claim – as his reward for providing the cockerel – the king’s new bride.
Olesya Titenko is a dramatic coloratura fully capable of rising to the challenges in the Queen of Shemakha’s brief role. Her “Hymn to the Sun” is the score’s only vocal hit, full of chromatic trickery, yet she sang it sensitively, especially in her pianissimo echo phrases; she also took Rimsky’s optional high D towards the end. In a neat touch, Titenko wore an identical organza stole as Natalia Savelieva’s Shemakha used to entwine Dodon on stage.
Opportunities to see Le Coq d’Or – in any form – are few and far between and anyone who cares about Rimsky’s opera should certainly try to catch this. As an opera-ballet, this isn’t a true fusion of the art forms, but both ballet and opera elements stand up well in Les Saisons Russes’ production to make an unusual, but highly entertaining evening.
For a fuller description of the history of Diaghilev’s version and critique of the balletic content, see my colleague Margaret Willis’ review in the Dance section.
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