A chorus of dancing horse heads in black stockings, an ageing tsar fumbling about in soiled underwear and, at show’s end, an old decapitated astrologer with his own singing head dangling by his side – Berlin based Australian director Barrie Kosky spreads his peacock feathers, as he imaginatively does time and again, in what is a soaringly sung, quirky and conceptually piquant opera, Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel.
On stage in its Australian premiere and a co-production with Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, Adelaide Festival, Opéra National de Lyon and Komische Oper Berlin (where Kosky has furthered his craft as Artistic Director for 10 years), The Golden Cockerel feels like a natural accompaniment to Kosky’s expansive repertoire.
Rimsky-Korsakov and his librettist Vladimir Bielski used as their source Alexander Pushkin’s short tale in verse written in 1834, The Tale of the Golden Cockerel. As a fantastical and politically satirical composition on Russian imperialism and autocracy, it is imbued with numerous layers and associations that comment on the climate of his time. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t pass the censors’ demands when it was completed in 1907.
Just as Kosky portrays the story’s fictional Tsar Dodon as entirely incompetent to rule, Tsar Nicolas II at the time faced opposition by mass demonstrations that resulted in the Red Sunday massacre and subsequent First Russian Revolution of 1905 and was accused of unforgivable crimes against the nation.
“My whim, my law, my order. That is the law!” Dodon extols. Acting out notions of territorial expansion in the mix, it is hard not to dwell on parallels with the Russian dictatorship of today.
Kosky makes it blatantly clear that the pitiful and delusional Dodon has lost his way: on one hand war-obsessed, the other craving peace. It is as if he is trapped in a hallucinogenic state, something of a psychiatric institutional escapee.
In it, he is confined by a diorama of undulating long-grassed fields cut by a path and a dead tree atop a hillock as part of Rufus Didwiszus’ desolate and singularly focused stage design and complimented by Franck Evin’s brooding lighting.
Pavlo Hunka convinces spectacularly as Dodon, his commanding physical outline and character’s age-compromised agility accompanying the pressing demands that come with the role. Hunka is rarely off stage. On it, his glorious bass-baritone instrument resonates with declamatory spark.
Dodon encounters passing and retreating characters who move the story forward. He meets the bearded, wizard-like Astrologer, sung by Russian tenor Andrei Popov who navigates the high tessitura with incisively sculpted might and traits that uncannily mimic the squawking of a parrot.
Aside for a moment, it is as if Rimsky-Korsakov ascribed a musical language to his characters that mimicked all manner of birdsong. Bielski’s text certainly incorporates references to a menagerie of additional avian creatures including the parrot, falcon, owl, swan and turkey.
The Astrologer produces a golden cockerel that can warn of imminent danger, represented by an impish, featherless and sparingly gold speckled actor (Matthew Whittet) and sung off-stage with striking alarm-like notification by soprano Samantha Clarke.
The Cockerel eventually turns on the tsar for having failed to deliver on a promise. Dodon is taken to the ground and his eyeballs clawed out in a grotesque but chucklesome scene which slots in marvellously amongst Kosky’s proliferation of dark humour.
There is the denigrated horse-headed army general, Polkan, who Russian bass Mischa Schelomianski gives commanding gravelly strength to. Dodon’s two ill-fated and foolish sons Aphron and Gvidon – displaying unreadiness for war in business attire and sung with handsomely calibrated stature by baritone Samuel Dundas and tenor Nicholas Jones – kill each other in a battle waged in the East, their headless corpses hanging off the tree longer than they sing their differences.
The fur-coated Amelfa comes by, her sights on far more than her role as the royal housekeeper and sung with lush, plummy notes by Ukrainian alto Alexandra Durseneva.
But it is the foreign, seductive and manipulative Queen of Chemakha, imbued with radiant sensuality and mellifluous elegance by Russian soprano Venera Gimadieva, who steers the path to Dodon’s doom. Proving she can win wars without armies, her beauty beguiles to the extent that Dodon is on the brink of marrying her. The Astrologer returns, wishing to claim her, but is met by Dodon with a butchered ending.
All the while at Sunday’s performance, the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra delivered excellence in the pit. Rimsky-Korsakov’s bejewelled and melodious score was superbly moulded by Estonian conductor Arvo Volmer with chromatic richness and clarity of expression.
And the Adelaide Festival Chorus sing and entertain splendidly as a nodding, shivering and obedient army of horse heads as well as a freakish-looking people of Russia mourning (or sarcastically mocking) the death of their sovereign. That said, Victoria Behr’s costumes ooze with brilliant, often metaphorical wit.
In a sense, Kosky’s own creation of a nightmarish, darkened and surreal world, goes a long way in demystifying the tale’s colourful surface. Kosky may not have known how alarmingly close the recent invasion of Ukraine by Russia brings Rimsky-Korsakov’s work home in today’s prickly climate, but he appears acutely aware of the unfortunate case of history repeating itself.
In a statement of support for Ukraine jointly issued by Artistic Directors of Adelaide Festival Neil Armfield and Rachel Healy, they state, “It is important that we remember the remarkable heritage of protest, pacifism, outrage at autocracy and respect for humanity that Russian art has gifted the world.” We haven’t heard the last of The Golden Cockerel.
The Golden Cockerel
Festival Theatre – Adelaide Festival Centre, King William Road, Adelaide
Performance: Sunday 6 March 2022
Season continues to 9 March 2022
Information and Bookings: www.adelaidefestival.com.au
Image: The Golden Cockerel – photo by Andrew Beveridge
Review: Paul Selar