When English Touring Opera chose Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel for their spring tour, they cannot possibly have been aware of the irony of staging a dark, satirical Russian opera about a tsar who has lost the plot while embroiled in a war that’s going badly wrong. Sadly, the similarities end quickly. Rimsky’s Tsar Dodon is not a reflection of the brutal Putin but of the hapless Nicholas II, who dithers while the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5 collapses around his ears, in thrall to the vagaries of the Empress Alexandra and her various healers and mystics, of whom Rasputin was to become the most important.

Grant Doyle (Tsar Dodon) and Paula Sides (Queen of Shemakha)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Russian humour is a thing of itself and The Golden Cockerel exemplifies this to a T, throwing fairytale, slapstick, surrealism, black humour and bitter sarcasm into the cauldron to come up with a weird and wonderful mixture – adding in Rimsky’s brilliance of orchestration and taste for orientalist exoticism for good measure. Whether it all succeeds or not is down to the person stirring the cauldron, in this case, director James Conway.

Neil Irish’s sets are simple and effective. A large open structure in the middle of the stage serves either for the watchtower on which sits the eponymous cockerel, whose task is to warn the city when danger approaches, or for the tent of the alluring Queen of Shemakha (the enemy commander for whom sex appeal turns out to be a more effective weapon than artillery). The colourful costumes, also by Irish, deposit us in the land of fairytale and clearly delineate each of the characters. Clever lighting by Rory Beaton allows moods to be shifted with little or no stage machinery. There’s plenty of enthusiastic movement around the stage by cast and chorus, although it can be rather mannered, so that fun things that happen are telescoped in advance rather than coming as a delightful surprise. And there's a neat historical reference at the end of the opera when the astrologer and the Queen drop their outer garments to reveal themselves in the image of Rasputin and Alexandra.

Jerome Knox (Afron), Grant Doyle (Dodon) and Thomas Elwin (Guidon)
© Richard Hubert Smith

The English verse translation by Antal Doráti and James Gibson presumably dates from Doráti’s 1945 Met performances and will have split the crowd. For me, the two hour stream of WS Gilbert-style rhyming gags amused at first but eventually became tedious and robbed Conway of the ability to darken the mood for the hard-hitting portions of the satire. On the other hand, there were plenty in the audience who were still guffawing at every gag right up to the close.

The Hackney Empire doesn’t fit a giant orchestra, but conductor Gerry Cornelius drew plenty of verve from his players and chorus members, with the faster and louder passages impressively vivacious but erring on the side of frantic; the slower numbers fared better, giving space for some attractive woodwind playing in Rimsky’s orientalist flourishes.

Alys Mererid Roberts (Golden Cockerel) and Robert Lewis (Astrologer)
© Richard Hubert Smith

In a generally good vocal performance, the pick of the singers was Robert Lewis as the Astrologer, who gives the cockerel to Dodon in return for an indeterminate reward to be claimed later. Lewis played the apparently shambolic evil genius to perfection while delivering a confident, flexible tenor. Alys Mererid Roberts intoned the cockerel’s notifications of peace and danger in a pleasant soprano with a clear, ringing top. As the tsar, a fat-suited Grant Doyle fussed and blustered, delivering some good power and some good lyrical legato on the few instances in which it was called for. Edward Hawkins turned in the most coherent acting performance of the evening as Polkan, the general who is continually frustrated by Dodon’s inattention and lack of grasp of military matters).

Paula Sides (Queen of Shemakha)
© Richard Hubert Smith

The role of the Queen of Shemakha is difficult because Act 2, in which she arrives and seduces Dodon, is too long. Paula Sides sang attractively and alluringly at the start but could not prevent the act from dragging. Sides wasn’t helped by a voluminous costume and static park-and-park stage direction at a point where there was a real need for the staging to add some colour.

Perhaps because of the mood of the moment, the production was at its best not in the slapstick or faux-romantic passages but in the points where the anti-war satire hits hard. With its peculiarly Russian mix of fairytale and satire, The Golden Cockerel is something of an oddity in the operatic canon. This ETO production failed to transport me into the land of fairytale and failed to leave me squirming at the viciousness of its satirical barbs – but with the exception of the Act 2 lull, it kept me interested and entertained throughout.