Barrie Kosky is well known in Adelaide. He has been Artistic Director of the Festival, where he has directed several key productions, and has even been quoted as saying that it is “my favourite arts festival in all the world.” And Adelaide audiences love his work. His staging of The Golden Cockerel this year is very different, a co-production with Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, Opéra de Lyon and Komische Oper Berlin, but one stripped bare of its “Russianness” and given a strange universal dream time, set nowhere in particular. Would composer Rimsky-Korsakov still recognise it? Possibly not, but Kosky has infused it with life and zest! 

Pavlo Hunka (Tsar Dodon), Nicholas Jones (Guidon) and Samuel Dundas (Afron)
© Andrew Beveridge

Set designer Rufus Didwiszus has crafted a path through coastal sand dunes, a scene reminiscent of my childhood (including a solitary bleached, dead tree). Victoria Behr’s stunning costumes (Tsar Dodon in dirty underwear, his army dressed in horse heads), Frank Evin’s imaginative lighting (captivating as he floods the featherless cockerel roosting in the tree with golden light), Otto Pichler’s toe-tapping choreography and dramaturg Olaf A Schmitt’s rich insights have come together to shape a brilliant production, with an outstanding cast. The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra under Arvo Volmer brilliantly conveyed the nuances of the richly rewarding score. Rimsky-Korsakov would have indeed applauded! Chorus Master Anthony Hunt has crafted some amazing chorus singing, nary a false note or imperfection. 

Pavlo Hunka (Tsar Dodon) and chorus
© Andrew Beveridge

I was captivated by the stratospheric tenor altino of Andrei Popov's Astrologer, who had an immediate rapport with the audience. He became a source of light relief when silently staggering across the stage to mark each new scene. With beautiful lyric coloratura soprano Venera Gimadieva's Queen of Shemakha, they were the most traditional of the characters (the only real ones according to the epilogue). At the start of Act 2, dressed regally in purple, Gimadieva emerged from behind the sand dune, to command with her engrossing Hymn to the Sun, the richness of her voice resonating throughout the auditorium. 

Venera Gimadieva (Queen of Shemakha) and dancers
© Andrew Beveridge

Sweet sounding bass-baritone Pavlo Hunka sang Tsar Dodon, once a commanding leader who had gone to seed and was now dressed in what looked like grubby underwear and fighting imaginary enemies, rapidly losing his grip on reality. Maybe he was driven to distraction by strong contralto Alexandra Durseneva, his over-attentive housekeeper, Amelfa. Hunka can sing and he can act. When Dodon set off to war, he rode a “horse” that Don Quixote would have been proud of, with extended head and tail, legs at full gallop but going absolutely nowhere. The chorus of soldiers were creatively dressed as giant horses’ heads on black stockinged legs (It took until the final curtain to see General Polkan unmasked, but Mischa Schelomianski's commanding voice was in no way muffled, his bass rich and deep, strong and sonorous.

The Tsar’s sons, Princes Afron and Gvidon (Samuel Dundas and Nicholas Jones) were squabbling teenagers in suits, providing some comic moments before heading off to do battle. By Act 2 their decapitated bodies were hanging by their feet from the lonely tree, resembling a pair of fruit bats. The golden cockerel was a two-hander: Matthew Whittet was the on-stage cockerel in the tree, plucked of his feathers, looking sad and forlorn, dressed only in shorts (or was it a nappy) who lip-synced to off-stage sweet voiced soprano Samantha Clarke, with clear, commanding singing to either rouse the tsar and populous to panic, or to calm them to repose.

Andrei Popov (Astrologer)
© Andrew Beveridge

The four lithesome attendants of the queen could really trip the light fantastic, shakers and jivers, spunkily dressed in tight fitting sparkling silver, ready to party, as indeed they did when the crowd of colourful citizens burst onto the stage, anticipating the nuptials of Tsar and Queen. Gimadieva looked calm and demure in orange pantsuit and belt, Astrologer Popov in top hat and tails, the scene set for confrontation. In no time at all the Tsar had refused to honour his promise to the Astrologer, the Queen had unloaded on the Tsar, the Tsar had decapitated the Astrologer, the Cock had pecked the Tsar to death and eaten his eyeballs, the Queen had vanished, leaving the citizens perplexed. And then the headless Astrologer appeared for an epilogue, his head dangling from his right hand, yet still able to speak, to tell us we had all been dreaming.

Everything about this Golden Cockerel was outstanding. Even the Ukrainian flag draped over the shoulders of a Ukrainian cast member at curtain call felt appropriate at this appalling time in world history. But, at least in this festival, Russians and Ukrainians can still share a stage together.