Despite its exotic trappings, Pushkin’s The Golden Cockerel is less a fairy tale than a drole political satire in the guise of a fairy tale. As a master purveyor of musical magic, from Scheherazade to his run of fantastical operas, Rimsky-Korsakov was also politically aware and supported his conservatoire students at the time of the failed 1905 revolution, and it must have been this side of the story that attracted him when he decided to write one more opera in 1907. But a work about a despotic tsar who ends up dead was not the sort of subject to go down well among the powers that be in pre-1917 Russia, and Rimsky didn’t live to see it staged before his death in 1909.

Pavlo Hunka (Tsar Dodon), Alexey Dolgov (Guidon) and Konstantin Shushakov (Afron) © Matthias Baus | La Monnaie
Pavlo Hunka (Tsar Dodon), Alexey Dolgov (Guidon) and Konstantin Shushakov (Afron)
© Matthias Baus | La Monnaie

French director Laurent Pelly is known for exploring the serious side of comedy in his productions and he sees the satire in The Golden Cockerel is black indeed. For this new production for Brussels, his set designer Barbara de Limburg covers the stage in an undulating landscape of fragmented coal – or it could just as easily, given the title character, be dried chicken manure. About the only real colour, apart from Tsar Dodon’s pet parrot, Coco, comes from the cockerel’s golden plumage; everything else is painted in black, muted greys and browns, and Pelly’s own costumes seem designed to blend in with the stage, as if any colour has been drained out and is being drawn downwards to merge with the blackness.

The story is told as if in Dodon’s dreams. He never changes out of his pyjamas, though he dons armour for battle, and otherwise seems to spend much of his life in bed. Pelly is masterly at characterising the comedy, through costumes as much as marshalling of his singers, with the chorus used especially effectively as soldiers and populace. The marital bed trundling forwards on tank tracks is a pertinent symbol of the tsar’s militaristic follies that have won him a bride – he then proceeds to sleep through the wedding celebrations. But otherwise, the comedy is all surprisingly subtle, and the underlying seriousness is never forgotten, especially with the Act III tableaux of Red Square and massed peoples.

Pavlo Hunka (Tsar Dodon) and Sarah Demarthe (Cockerel) © Matthias Baus | La Monnaie
Pavlo Hunka (Tsar Dodon) and Sarah Demarthe (Cockerel)
© Matthias Baus | La Monnaie

The cast is largely Slavic, led by the charismatic and finely turned singing of British-Ukrainian Pavlo Hunka, who portrays Dodon as a feckless but impetuous and ineffectual leader. Young Bolshoi star Venera Gimadieva continues her run of Western debuts, following her appearance in the Royal Opera’s La traviata earlier this year, with a scintillating portrayal of the Tsarina of Shemakha, fluidly and seductively sung. The role of the Astrologer, designated as a tenor altino, is often difficult to cast given its stratospheric demands, and the otherwise mellifluous Alexander Kravets had to make obvious recourse to falsetto for some of the highest notes. Sheva Tehoval was a clarion Cockerel (a role danced effectively by Sarah Demarthe), Agnes Zwierko a resonant Housekeeper and Alexander Vassiliev a slightly under-powered Polkan. Apart from the odd minor lapse of ensemble, the chorus made an impressive sound.

Venera Gimadieva (Queen of Shamakha), Pavlo Hunka (Tsar Dodon) and Alexander Kravets (Astrologer) © Matthias Baus | La Monnaie
Venera Gimadieva (Queen of Shamakha), Pavlo Hunka (Tsar Dodon) and Alexander Kravets (Astrologer)
© Matthias Baus | La Monnaie

Rimsky-Korsakov’s gloriously colourful score – almost in defiance of Pelly’s monochromatic stage pictures – was fully exploited by the Monnaie orchestra under Alain Altinoglu, conducting his first production as the company’s new music director. There was even what was billed as a ‘musical surprise’ with an extra entr’acte to cover the scene change between Acts II and III – a violin-and-piano fantasy on the Tsarina’s Act II “Hymn to the Sun” (not the more familiar Zimbalist fantasy, I think) played by the orchestra’s leader Saténik Khourdoian accompanied by Altinoglu.

The production can be seen later this season in Nancy and Madrid, and will be streamed on demand at The Opera Platform from late December.