Saturday, June 30, 2012


Radio New Zealand Concert network
Sunday 1st of July 2012 at 3 - 5 pm

The Golden Cockerel an opera in three acts
Tsar Dodon................... Vladimir Matorin
Tsarevich Gvidon.......... Boris Rudak
Tsarevich Afron............. Mikhail Diyakov
General Polkan.............. Nikolai Kazansky
Amelfa.......................... Tatiana Yerastova
Astrologer..................... Jeff Martin
Shemakhan Tsaritsa....... Venera Gimadieva
Golden Cockerel........... Anna Khvostenko
Bolshoi Theatre Chorus & Orch/Vassily Sinaisky
(recorded by Russian Radio, Moscow)




This is the fourteenth and final opera of Rimsky-Korsakov (1844 -1908); it is an opera-ballet; that does not mean an opera with an obligatory ballet scene in the French tradition, but one in which the principal characters dance and sing. It was first staged  in 1909, after the  composer’s death. It was yet another of the operas based on a story of Alexander Pushkin (1799 - 1837), but it had a contemporary satirical reference to the reign of Tsar Nicholas II and the unpopular and disastrous Russo-Japanese war. It was completed in 1907, but was immediately banned by the censors.The king in the opera was named Dodon (Pushkin called him Dadon, but an allusion to the dodo bird seems to be intended). There was unrest and uprising in Russia, starting with the massacre on Bloody Sunday in 1905, when a priest led several thousand people in a demonstration for better working conditions, in Palace Square in Saint Petersburg, and the Tsarist troops gunned down more than a thousand of the protesters. This incident is solemnly commemorated in Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony. Incidentally, Rimsky’s Cockerel became the fore-runner of the absurdist  Russian operas: Shostakovich’s The Nose (1930) and Prokofiev’s The Love of Three Oranges (1921).
   The setting is in a distant place and time. One performance I have seen on video recording is at the Chatelet theatre in Paris, with a Russian chorus from Saint Petersburg and the Orchestre de Paris, conducted by Kent Nagano; also staged and choreographed by Japanese artists; the director was Thomas Grimm!   This audio recording was made in the Bolshoi Theatre. The bad news is that Anna Netrebko is not in either of these. The worse news is that there are no subtitles for either of them. The good tidings are that we know the tunes from the orchestral suite (as heard on the radio), but on video we will see movement accompanying the familiar music, though we cannot understand the speech. The Bolshoi production is in modern dress (see PREVIEW).
   ACT 1 The court of King Dodon
The orchestra opens with some of the leading motifs; then the Astrologer rises up  between two hovering lights; he is holding a large key (perhaps the coq d’or key); he warns the audience to be vigilant, because this old tale has a moral that is relevant and must be heeded.
   Tsar Dodon sits on his exalted throne; he is convinced that his kingdom is under threat of invasion. His sons, Guidon  and Afron,  suggest unorthodox ways of defending the realm; General Polkan objects, but the King supports his two Tsareviches.
  The Astrologer reappears and, for a price, offers the King the Golden Cockerel (female [!] soprano), which can foretell the future by its crowing, whether peace or calamity. Dodon is delighted, but foolishly dismisses the magician with a vague promise of payment.
   Dodon is put to sleep by Amelfa the housekeeper; he dreams of a beautiful maiden. The guard-bird utters a warning cry, and Polkan wakes the king. He decides to make a pre-emptive strike against the neighbouring country; he imposes new taxes, and sends the army off to war, led by the two princes.  When the bird trumpets another warning, the Tsar dons his armour and heads for the battle-field.
   ACT 2  A narrow mountain pass (or whatever the producer decides)
By moonlight Tsar Dodon inspects the dead bodies of his soldiers, and finds his own sons, who have ineptly killed each other in the unprovoked battle. The King takes over the leadership of the army, and when dawn breaks, a silken tent is seen on the horizon. This is assumed to be the headquarters of the enemy commander, and a canon is fired at it,  or mis-fired. A beautiful woman emerges from it; she is surely a seductress, so the soldiers flee. She sings the celebrated hymn to the sun.
   The Tsar is impressed, and she introduces herself to him: she is the Queen ( Tsaritsa) of Shemakha, come to conquer him. What, without an army? The lady wheels out her artillery and wields her weapons: sensuous song, lashings of eyelashes, torrents of tears (where will she find a man who will contradict her and dominate her), wheedling words (she describes the attributes she has under her garments), and she dances (yes, seductively, but she merely removes her coat) for the Tsar; she does not like General Polkan, but threatens to dance with him if the Tsar does not shape up. He makes a fool of himself, but he is conquered: he offers all his goods (everything I have is yours) including his kingdom.
   At first she treats his proposal with disdain, but when he adds that everything in the way of sweetmeats and drinks, plus stories, will be provided, she prepares to depart immediately, ordering her servants to sing the praises of the bridegroom; they compare him to a lumbering camel, a gesticulating ape, and a hideous spectre. Dodon is beside himself with joy; he calls for trumpets to be sounded for his victory, and his timorous soldiers now triumphantly exclaim Hurrah.
   ACT 3  Home again jiggety jig
Back at King Dodon’s palace the populace is worried about the outcome of the war, but Amelfa, the royal housekeeper, eventually condescends to assure them that Dodon will return in triumph, having conquered four kings (Hearts, Spades, Clubs, Diamonds) bringing a young bride, a maiden he rescued from a dragon. But what about the two princes? The King has put them to death. (She is guessing fairly correctly in all this.) She bids them hail their king, but they should not expect any mercy from their implacable ruler.
    The procession arrives (the queen’s cort├Ęge should include people with one eye in their forehead, with a dog-head, with horns, giants, dwarfs, blacks). The people do slavish obeisance. The Wise Man appears; the Queen is uneasy, and asks who he is; the King welcomes him as his old friend. The astrologer reminds Dodon of the promise he made, and his price is  to have the Queen of Shemakha for himself. Dodon remonstrates with him, then strikes him on the head with his scepter; he falls down dead, apparently. The Queen laughs. The King fears this is a bad omen for their wedding day. The Queen brushes it off lightly, but then gives Dodon the brush off in no uncertain terms.
   At this point the bird also gives him the bird, with a hefty peck on the skull, which kills him. The Queen laughs and disappears with the golden cockerel. The people are stupefied. The King is dead; he was like a raging storm over us, but he was wise. They fall on their faces, weeping and sobbing.
  The sage (Barry Banks, high tenor) comes back on stage and announces the end of the story, suggesting that he and the Queen were the only real people in it. Yet, in the Paris production three characters stand as shadows on the stage. Remember,  this was satire against Russian royalty.
   As for the music, Rimsky borrowed the idea of leading motifs from Wagner, and there is a small collection of tuneful themes which weave the entire fabric. (May the cockerel peck me dead on the head if  I am insulting the maestro. Actually, when I was very young,  I was attacked by a rooster, and I still have a scar on my face; not a peck from a beak but a slash from a claw; it is embedded in a smile-line.)

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