Think of Boris Yeltsin and one image probably springs to mind. In 1996, campaigning for re-election as Russian president, defying accusations of ill-health, he danced at a rock concert in Rostov. It is an iconic image, which won its photographer a Pulitzer Prize: a dotty old man, probably sozzled on vodka, engaging in cringeworthy 'dad dancing'... but it endeared him to a nation determined not to slip back under Communist rule. In this witty update of Rimsky-Korsakov's final opera The Golden Cockerel at Deutsche Oper am Rhein, Dmitry Bertman turns bumbling Tsar Dodon into a Yeltsin-like figure.
Bertman is a Muscovite and is artistic director of Moscow's Helikon Opera, so is as steeped in Russian politics as was the composer. In Pushkin's tale on which Rimsky based his opera, Tsar Dodon is a hapless leader attempting to protect his kingdom's borders, but preferring to rule from his bed, relying on the crowing advice of a golden cockerel. Rimsky's opera was inflammatory stuff, taking a thinly veiled pop at Nicholas II following the tsar's humiliating defeat in the Russo-Japanese War. It was no wonder that The Golden Cockerel fell foul (or should that be 'fowl'?) of the imperial censor in 1907.
In his staging, Bertman delights in presenting the tsar as a buffoon. Dodon shares a hot-tub with his sons and his general, sucking on milk from a baby's bottle, and gullibly believes that the Astrologer's gift of a golden cockerel will provide an early warning system of neighbouring attacks. He is so overworked that Amelfa, his PA, lifts all the telephones off the hook so he can enjoy a quiet snooze at his desk.
When his sons fail to return from battle, Dodon heads off himself, ending up in a Parisian nightclub where he is seduced by the Queen of Shemakha, a cabaret girl in gold pleated, open-fronted skirt and glittering headdress. She orders him to dance – cue some Yeltsin moves – and he offers her both his heart and his kingdom. But when the Astrologer demands the Queen as his reward, all hell breaks loose. Dodon kills the Astrologer, then (usually) the cockerel pecks the tsar to death. But here, Amelfa is seen devouring the bird at the start of Act III, so at the end of the Epilogue, where the Astrologer reappears to explain the moral of the tale, Dodon turns up unabashed... a political leader reborn, pitching up smelling of roses.
Bertman invokes another Russian political leader – Boris Godunov – in a scene where the peasant chorus pleads for bread just at Dodon's moment of marital conquest. Rimsky and Mussorgsky were roommates at one point, and Rimsky revised and re-orchestrated Boris, so this was a neat parallel for Bertman to draw.
Axel Kober's lively tempi kept Rimsky's colourful score on the move, sinewy woodwind solos to the fore and the cockerel's crowing motif incisively delivered by the trumpets apart from a fluff in the opera's very first bar (after every note had been repeatedly nailed as they warmed up!).
That Deutsche Oper am Rhein can present this opera so well is astonishing. Only Antonina Vesenina, the Queen of Shemakha, isn't a company member. Vesenina, resident singer at the Mariinsky, sang splendidly. She reminds me of Anna Netrebko in her early Kirov days, when she sang 'lighter' roles like Glinka's Lyudmila. Vesenina has a laser-like top to her register, and she rattles off Rimsky's sinuous chromatic twists and turns with ease. Her “Hymn to the Sun” – delivered in French and English, causing Dodon and Polkan to refer to their phrasebook – was the evening's vocal highlight.
Boris Statsenko threw bass weight and splendid comic acting at Tsar Dodon, matched by Sami Luttinen's growly bass-baritone as an alcohol-soaked General Polkan. The role of the Astrologer was written for tenor altino – a very high tenor; this isn't natural territory for Cornel Frey, who nevertheless sang commendably, even if his brave attempt at a full-throated high E(!) towards the end was throttled. Eva Bodorová's spirited cockerel had pinpoint accuracy, singing from either side of the balcony in the simple, but elegant auditorium.
Corby Welch and Roman Hoza did sterling work as the tsar's feuding sons, only getting “slaughtered” in the alcoholic sense (they are usually slain in battle), so returning to Moscow in Act III wearing “I ♥ Paris” t-shirts. Renée Morloc's fruity mezzo made much of Amelfa – the power behind the throne – while the chorus sang decently throughout.
This simple, but stylish staging of Rimsky's satire is a great company achievement. If you can't catch it in Düsseldorf this spring, it returns next season with much the same cast.
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