Banned in Moscow! Rimsky-Korsakov’s last opera “The Golden Cockerel”
Tim Mix (Tsar Dodon), Keven Burdette (General Polkan), Meredith Arwady (Amelfa), and the chorus | Paul Horpedahl for Santa Fe Opera, 2017

SANTA FE, N.M.—So many operas, so little time! Santa Fe Opera has been presenting opera with the highest professional values since 1957, yet this is the first time the company has offered Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s last opera, The Golden Cockerel. In fact, it’s the only opera by this composer the company has ever staged. In fact, his operas rarely get staged at all, outside Russia, at least. In fact, only a handful of Russian operas are ever seen on Western stages.

I recall a Snegurochka (The Snow Maiden) by Rimsky-Korsakov that I saw at the Maly Theatre in Leningrad in 1980 at the height of the Cold War. “A charming production, steeped in tradition, with a fine mezzo,” I wrote in a travelogue of that trip, “we are likely to hear nothing like it in the West any time soon.”

The Golden Cockerel has a remarkable history. Curiously enough, it is based on one of Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra, his adaptation of the tales of the Arabian nights. He happened to be traveling in Spain with a friend of the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, and upon publication of his 1832 collection, which included the “Legend of the Arabian Astrologer,” Pushkin transformed it into the satirical poem “Tale of the Golden Cockerel.” Pushkin set his story in Russia, using a nationalist folk style to criticize the Russian aristocracy.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov is best known for his masterfully orchestrated compositions such as the frequently performed Capriccio Espagnol, the Russian Easter Festival Overture, and the symphonic suite Scheherazade, prominent examples of his fairy tale and folk style. He encouraged other Russian composers of his time to draw on their native literature, history, and musical traditions to establish a national school independent of European models. Most of his 15 operas reflect this orientation.

During the 1905 Revolution, students at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where Rimsky-Korsakov taught, as well as at St. Petersburg State University, demonstrated for political reforms and for a constitutional monarchy. In this turbulent period, often referred to as a “rehearsal” for the 1917 Revolution, Tsarist officials met protest with alarming violence. Rimsky-Korsakov sided with the students, 100 of whom were expelled, and he was dismissed from the faculty. The police banned Rimsky-Korsakov’s work, and other faculty members resigned in protest. Although he was later reinstated, he retired from the Conservatory in 1906.

His liberal political sympathies nevertheless found expression in Pushkin’s poem, which he composed as the opera The Golden Cockerel, with a libretto by Vladimir Belsky. Its implied censure of monarchy, Russian imperialism and the Russo-Japanese War—which was among the provocations for the 1905 Revolution—ruled out a performance, which must necessarily have had to be approved by the censors.

Rimsky-Korsakov died in 1908 at the age of 64, and only the next year, after the worker and student agitation had subsided, would the opera see its premiere at Moscow’s private Solodovnikov Theatre, albeit in an adapted version. The opera went on to achieve a certain popularity, known in the West by its French title Le coq d’or, and received its Metropolitan Opera premiere in 1918, where it held the stage for a couple of decades. In more recent years, however, it virtually disappeared from opera house repertoires.

In the opera, the old foolish king, Tsar Dodon (Tim Mix)—the name purposefully suggests “Dodo”—fears his empire is under attack from enemies on his border. A wily Astrologer (high tenor Barry Banks) gives him a Golden Cockerel (soprano Kasia Borowiec) to sit atop the ramparts of the capital and warn him of any danger. In exchange for this vital tool in his military arsenal, Dodon promises the Astrologer anything he wants. When the wise man asks for a legal contract, the Tsar answers, “I’ve never heard of such a thing! My every command and whim is ‘a contract’…. My word here is law!” (Apparently some things never change.)

Responding to the rooster’s cries, Dodon sends his idiotic sons, Prince Guidon (Richard Smagur) and Prince Afron (Jorge Espino) off to war. These two, exemplary chips off the old block, wind up killing each other on the battlefield, but in the aftermath of the massacre, the mysterious Queen of Shemakha (Venera Gimadieva) appears, with her seductive songs and belly dances, to woo Dodon. The Tsar invites her back to his capital to become his wife.

The Shemakha role in particular (she occupies center stage of the entire second act) shows the composer’s fascination with the different national groups that comprised the Russian Empire. She comes from the far-flung exotic province of Azerbaijan, which Russia acquired from Persia in 1828.

In the third act denouement, Dodon meets an especially brutal end—one final reason for the censors to ban performance of the opera. The Astrologer’s prologue promises a useful moral to his tale, that those in power take their responsibility seriously. For generations of young men have been sent off to futile war, and the national treasure is squandered. The chorus—the famously great “people” of the Russian operatic tradition—conclude this morality tale not by hailing the new ruler, but by asking “What will the new dawn bring? What will we do without our tsar?”

As Dodon, baritone Tim Mix was outfitted as a tubby hedonist encased in a bright red onesie, who literally had to climb up to sit on his oversized throne. He enjoys snacking on his servant Amelfa’s (contralto Meredith Arwady) tasty goodies, then napping on her lap, where he dreams of teddy bears and beautiful women. When the war cry is sounded, Dodon marches off on a life-sized hobbyhorse.

As the Queen of Shemakha, Russian soprano Venera Gimadieva brought out a sultry, dusky, lusty interpretation of this chromatic, melismatic, “Orientalist” music, very different from the bell-like sonorities sometimes recorded by coloratura sopranos. It took me some time to decide if this was “right” for the role, but then it occurred to me that the legendary soprano Maria Callas, in her interpretation of the classic leading ladies of Donizetti, Bellini, Verdi and Puccini, transformed the way we understand these women with unaccustomed ferocity. Director Paul Curran brought out the graphic—effectively pornographic—quality of her seductiveness.

Emmanuel Villaume conducted this revelatory score, with storybook scenic and costume design by Gary McCann.

Planning for a production of this magnitude at a world-class house like Santa fe Opera begins years in advance. I know this will sound like kind of a spoiler, but I’m writing this for the record, not because I expect this review will get very many people to Santa Fe to see this opera. I cannot believe that the decision to disrobe the Tsar and the Queen in the last act and reclothe them as Donald and Melania Trump lookalikes was anything but a last-minute directorial decision responding to the mood of the moment. Dodon’s long blue beard disappeared and a stylish short brown beard took its place, vaguely recalling the look of Nicholas II who would be overthrown in 1917.

I believe audiences have to be trusted more to draw their own conclusions about foolish rulers and their beautiful seductresses without every detail, down to the long, solid red tie, being spelled out for them. I’m no fan of the Trumps, needless to say, but artistically I feel this was a misfire. From the very start we already got the idea that this childish nincompoop was way too small to occupy the enormous throne of the Russian Empire.

This is a co-production with the Dallas Opera, which may well decide to eliminate this conceit once its turn comes to stage the work—by which time the red tie may well have become an unpleasant though distant memory. Although a case could be be made for turning him into more of a Nicholas figure, even if not so instantly recognizable by opera audiences.

Nevertheless, Santa Fe Opera deserves warm plaudits for restoring this provocative, forward-looking Russian gem.

The last two performances take place August 9 and 18 at 8 pm. See Santa Fe Opera for ticket and other information.


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