Last week finally saw the long-awaited première at the Bolshoi Theatre of a new ballet based on the life of Rudolf Nureyev. Originally planned in July, it had been cancelled at the last minute amongst speculations that the themes of homosexuality and defection to the West had caused the ire of some government figures. The director of the ballet, Kirill Serebrennikov, currently under house arrest over allegations of fraud that some condemn as politically-motivated, was conspicuously absent at the première.

Venera Gimadieva © Leonid Semenyuk
Venera Gimadieva
© Leonid Semenyuk

Rewind to over a century ago and it is difficult not to draw a parallel with the early fate of The Golden Cockerel. Composed in 1907, after the disastrous Russo-Japanese war and the bloody repression of the 1905 revolution, Rimsky-Korsakov’s last opera was immediately stricken by the tsarist censor. Under the disguise of a fairy tale, it was a scorching satire of Tsar Nicholas II’s disastrous reign. It would eventually only be premiered in 1909, after the death of the composer (which may have well been precipitated by his battle against censorship). The story goes as follows: in an imaginary kingdom, Tsar Dodon yearns for spending his days leisurely sleeping and pigging out but cannot find any rest because of the threat of invasion by surrounding kingdoms. An astrologer offers him a golden cockerel that will crow an alert whenever the kingdom is in danger. Dodon is overjoyed and promises to grant the astrologist whatever he desires. At the cockerel’s first crow, he sends his inept sons to battle but, as they do not return, he reluctantly goes to war himself. He meets his enemy: the beautiful Queen of Shemakha, who seduces him. Under her spell, he promises her his hand and his kingdom. As the wedding celebrations are about to start, the astrologer reappears and demands the queen as his reward. Furious, the tsar smashes the astrologist’s cranium with his sceptre. The cockerel takes flight and pecks the tsar’s head to death.

A concert performance, without all the colourful costumes and sets, might not sound like the ideal setting to do justice to such a fairy tale but, during this Saturday matinée, conductor Vasily Petrenko did not need visual stimuli to keep the Concertgebouw’s audience captivated. Following his lead, the forces of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic sounded nothing short of inspired, displaying a superb sense of rhythm and a voluptuous array of colours that uncovered the heady magic of Rimsky-Korsakov’s score. Moments of exotic sensuality alternated with passages of caustic humour (like Dodon’s march to war or the chorus of slaves mocking his dance moves) keeping listeners constantly on their toes. The Netherlands Radio Choir performed their role as the tongue-the-cheek servile people with flying colours.

The cast was composed entirely of Slavic singers, with the exception of Barry Banks as the astrologer. The English tenor was excellent in this character role, displaying baffling ease in the stratospheric heights of the tessitura written for a tenor altino. Singing from the side balcony of the main hall, Polish soprano Aleksandra Kubas-Kruk was a clarion Golden Cockerel. Moldovan bass Oleg Tsibulko was a suitably irate General Polkan. As the housekeeper Amelfa, Yulia Mennibaeva’s mezzo-soprano displayed an attractive, dark bottom range. Viktor Antipenko’s muscly tenor (Tsarevich Gvidon) and Andrei Bondarenko’s handsome baritone (Tsarevich Afron) competed for their father’s favour. As Tsar Dodon, Maxim Mikhailov’s bass sometimes lacked the required heft, especially at the top of the range, but he compensated by first-rate characterization.  Russian soprano Venera Gimadieva, making her Amsterdam debut as the Queen of Shemaka, was ever the seductress, singing her exotic meandering coloratura with a shimmering tone.