RIMSKY-KORSAKOV The Golden Cockerel
Valery Gergiev’s Kirov recordings of Rimsky-Korsakov operas for Philips in the 1990s did much to restore the composer’s reputation internationally as a serious operatic force. It’s a great shame that the series stalled, as it had yet to cover some of the most colourful works – The Golden Cockerel, Tsar Saltan and The Snow Maiden. The Mariinsky Theatre programmes Rimsky regularly – six of his operas are scheduled for next season – and in December 2014 it unveiled this slightly bonkers new production by Anna Matison of The Golden Cockerel, filmed two days after the Christmas Day premiere.
Matison emphasises the surreal, fairy-tale aspects of the opera rather than any elements of political satire. A girl with a chicken-headed backpack – a tourist taking selfies – prises apart a gigantic jewel box to reveal Dodon’s court, the cartoonish tsar and his sons wearing oversize onion-domed crowns, like St Basil’s Cathedral. The girl becomes the cockerel, presented to Dodon by Andrei Popov’s snakeskin-jacketed Astrologer to watch out for enemy danger. CGI projections reign supreme, with a coiling serpent matching the sinuous clarinet solo in the introduction.
In Act 2 things get weird. Swathed in dry ice, we are in a fantasy land where flower maidens attend the Queen of Shemakha – Aida Garifullina, skimpily clad and with long blond tresses. Dodon’s sons have slain each other, their onion-dome crowns all that remain of them. A psychedelic kaleidoscope on a giant screen is as nothing though to the dizzying effect of much of the footage being filmed in close-up on the Mariinsky II stage, obviously shot later and lip-synched (not terribly well). Matison starts to develop an interesting departure from the original plot here in that Dodon’s general, Polkan, is clearly attracted to Shemakha, who seems to return his affections, but is left abandoned at the end, the queen escorted by Dodon back to his kingdom. In the short final act, Shemakha forces Dodon to slay the Astrologer when he dares to ask for her hand as his reward. The cockerel then throws her backpack and topples Dodon’s crown to kill him. It’s all knockabout fun in a colourful production, even if Matison doesn’t plumb any great satirical depths.
Vocally, this would make an excellent audio-only recording were it not for one fatal flaw. The tenor role of the Astrologer lies perilously high and Andrei Popov just doesn’t possess the stratospheric notes that Barry Banks pings out so easily on the 2002 Châtelet/Kent Nagano production on ArtHaus – a kabuki-inspired staging by Ennosuke Ichikawa that still looks very handsome. Otherwise, this release boasts a decent cast, led by Vladimir Feliauer’s sturdy Dodon and Aida Garifullina’s seductive Shemakha, bell-like in tone. Gergiev and his Mariinsky forces could play this score in their sleep but give an alert, punchy reading. You get a choice of medium, with both DVD and Blu ray discs included. A qualified recommendation if you already own the ArtHaus DVD; but if you want to explore Rimsky’s exotic score, this is as good a place as any to start.