Monday, May 29, 2017

The Golden Cockerel

Last night was my last concert outing on this trip with a return to the Teatro Real for Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov's The Golden Cockerel. You should read both those Wikipedia entries so I can avoid rehearsing the story here! As discussed in the essay by Joan Matabosch, artistic director of the Teatro Real, in the program booklet, the origins of the opera came out of two political events in Tsarist Russia: the absurdly incompetent conduct of a losing war with Japan in 1904 and the brutal putting down by the Imperial Guard of a peaceful demonstration with more than a thousand casualties on "Bloody Sunday" in 1905. Rimsky-Korsakov completed the opera, on a libretto by Vladimir Belsky, in 1907. It was banned from performance and not premiered, even then with alterations, until 1909, after Rimsky-Korsakov's death. It is a bitter satire, full of black humor and offers little in the way of consolation: the Tsar and his sons and officials are incompetent and ludicrous, their military is incompetent and brutal and the people have neither the will nor the ability to rule themselves. There are really no good guys in the opera. The Tsar Dodon is a fool, the mysterious Tsarina Shemakha is taunting and exotic, but causes the downfall of the Tsar, the Astrologer, who manipulates everyone, seems the incarnation of an amoral fate.

The production was excellent, though completely different from the two I have previously seen at the Teatro Real. Those others were both modernist works and were done with a modernist production, which was completely appropriate. This production was much simpler, but very effective. It began with a brilliant device: for the prologue, the Astrologer sticks his head out from behind the curtains and is illuminated by a bright white spot. He tell us he has the power to breathe life into puppets and to prove it, he is going to animate "the burlesque masks of an old tale." While he is singing this, his head slowly ascends, still poking out between the curtains, until he is 30 or so feet above the stage. Then he disappears, the curtains open and the opera begins. The first and third acts take place in the Tsar's bedroom with a dark stage occupied by a huge bed. Color is very important in this production. Virtually every costume is white, grey or silver, the sole exception being the Golden Cockerel itself, in canary yellow. The costumes are wonderful, simple, but effective, which is true of the whole production. The second act takes place in front of the Tsarina Shemakha's tent which they have realized like a great horn of openwork steel containers from small to large that contain lights. Hard to describe, but again, effective. The Tsarina has a group of demonic black followers with heads like dogs and she, the very essence of Oriental eroticism, is dressed in silver and black. Her opening aria is a Hymn to the Sun and a very challenging one. Here is a performance from a different production by Olga Trifonova:

In another passage she gives a catalogue of the excellence of her various body parts. The poor Tsar really didn't have a chance!

The opera has usually been performed in either French or English in most opera houses but this is a new co-production with the Opera National de Lorraine and it is sung in Russian. The sur-titles were in Spanish and English. Of course for this you need a whole cast of Russian singers--two actually as all the main roles had two singers for alternate performances. This evening the Dodon was sung by Dmitry Ulyanov, his two sons by Sergei Skorokhodov and Alexy Lavrov, the Astrologer (a rare tenore contraltino part) by Alexander Kravets, and Shemakha by Venera Gimadieva (whose part includes a couple of extremely high E notes!)

I'm certainly not an expert on Russian singing, but everyone seemed to do a good job, especially Mme Gimadieva whose virtuosity dominates Act II.

Just a note on the composition. I am not very acquainted with the music of Rimsky-Korsakov apart from Scheherezade, a recording of which I had for many years and which I have also heard in concert. But this is my first opera by him. The brilliance of the orchestration was no surprise, nor were the chromatic orientalisms usually associated with Shemakha. Russian composers often feel themselves as being caught between European and Asian worlds. What I did find surprising was that Rimsky-Korsakov relies so heavily on melodic sequences and not very creative ones, at that. After a while they got to be a bit predictable: write a short melodic idea, repeat it, repeat it again on a different pitch. I will have to listen to more of him and see if this is a common trait.

It was nice to return to the Teatro and I had a seat much closer in this time. Here are some photos. I was on the ground floor, which was closer to the stage, but offered no view into the orchestra pit:

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I did walk up at intermission and take a picture. You can see the score requires two harps:

Here is a shot of the boxes for the high dollar customers. Note the gold leaf. Each box also has a large mirror so you can check your makeup:

But where does the royal family sit when they attend? After all, it is their theatre. Ah, right in the centre, of course. Note the royal crest:

Here is a shot of the downstairs lobby at intermission. As you can see, there are five levels of people enjoying their cavas:

I tried to get a photo of the bows at the end, but they just didn't come out. This is about as good as any with Shemakha taking her bow:

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It was an entirely satisfactory end to a wonderful series of concerts. I will have more posts musing over this and that in coming days, but for now, this is it. Let's end with a clip of the whole opera from the Bolshoi in 1989, Evgeny Svetlanov conducting:


Patrick said...

"the Tsar and his sons and officials are incompetent and ludicrous, their military is incompetent and brutal and the people have neither the will nor the ability to rule themselves." This made me think of where America is heading with the Orange Idiot as president.

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh no, does this mean that there is a satirical opera in the offing?

Will Wilkin said...

I love your many pics of the diverse concert halls! The architecture only "serves" the concert function, the music (and drama in opera) being the reason the crowd comes together, but the magnificent and imaginative architectural diversity is part of the color and excitement of the event, and offers an attraction of its own, the gallery itself being a work of art.

And regarding Rimsky-Korsakov, I have never listened to his operas and really heard only a limited portion of his repertoire, but he was a masterful orchestrator and offered very entrancing melodies.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Will. I know that no-one else seems to include photos of the hall in their concert reviews, but to me it seems part of the whole experience. Thanks for noticing! Rimsky-Korsakov wrote, I think, fifteen operas and this is the only one that has had many Western performances. Gergiev, starting in the 90s, has apparently done excellent performances of some of them which are available on DVD.