Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Deconstruction of the State: Golden Cockerel at Santa Fe

Venera Gimadieva (Shemakha), Tim Mix (Dodon) in The Golden Cockerel. Photo: Ken Howard


Santa Fe Opera, New Mexico

The Santa Fe Opera’s commendable practice of exhuming rarely performed operas brought to the Crosby Stage this summer the last of Rimsky-Korsakov’s fourteen works in the genre, The Golden Cockerel (better known in French as Le Coq d’Or). It gave the Russian composer his very first, if belated, outing here.

If one is familiar only with the composer’s Scheherazade and Capriccio Espagnol, the more sophisticated treatment of their exotic colors and rhythms in this greater musical cousin will come as a revelation. Rimsky’s proto-Impressionistic score was to influence and inspire his star pupil, Igor Stravinsky, in his Fireworks (1908) and Firebird (1910), particularly in the use of primitive ritualistic motifs.

A Czar unfit for service. Photo: Paul Horpedahl
A cautionary tale, The Golden Cockerel has a foolish king on the exotic eastern fringes of the Russian Empire engaging in antics that lead to disaster. It was the product of the aging composer’s concerns over the rapid  disintegration of Russia's political climate and social cohesion at the dawn of the twentieth century. Czar Nicholas II’s loss of naval forces in the 1905 Russo-Japanese War vexed the composer, who had been a naval officer and revered the institution.

Alexander Pushkin’s eponymous last poem (based on a couple of Washington Irving stories) had satirized the earlier Czar Nicholas I in 1834. Librettist Vladimir Belsky adapted the Pushkin for the stage and Rimsky completed its music in 1907, influenced and deepened by a late-in-life study of Richard Wagner’s mature operas. But the Czarist censor delayed the opera’s premiere until 1909, by which time the exhausted composer had already died. Eight years later, exactly a century ago, the Russian Revolution would eliminate Imperial Russia and its czars forever.

The story is framed by a prologue and epilogue, with an Astrologer setting the context. It opens with a worried Czar Dodon mounting his throne. He lacks trust in his general, and his two doltish sons can’t agree on a course of action against enemies on the realm’s borders. An Astrologer offers Dodon the advice of his aviary savant, a Golden Cockerel. Dodon accepts the offer but refuses any contract for terms, stating he pays only on whim. When Dodon later dreams of a threatening Queen of Shemakha, the Cockerel verifies the danger and sets Dodon off to war.

The Czar's bride-to-be. Photo: Ken Howard
In a mountain gorge, Dodon finds the bodies of his two sons, who may have stabbed one another. The Queen of Shemakha enters. Her impromptu seduction of Dodon erases his intention to war on her, inducing instead his desire to marry her. General Polkan’s warning about this leads to his beheading. When all are returned to the Capital, the Astrologer claims as just compensation the Queen of Shemakha for his own pleasure. Enraged, Dodon strikes the Astrologer down, plunging the realm into immediate darkness as the revengeful Cockerel pecks Dodon to death. When light returns, the Cockerel and the Queen are gone. In an epilogue, the Astrologer, alone with the Queen of Shemakha, claims all the preceding to have been “merely an illusion.”

Such a fantastic fable can be played many ways. Its inherently disjointed narrative and artificial characters benefit from a staging that can thread the needle between farce and tragedy. While this production was colorful and its music impressive, its frivolous if diverting staging shed little light on any of the darker undercurrents that may have prompted the work’s creation 110 years ago.

The distracted czar's Falstaff-like comeuppance relies heavily on jokes and sight-gags in Paul Curran’s mad-cap, high-camp direction. It is sprinkled with winks and nods to the audience about the current occupant of the White House and his own two sons. Sung and acted with infectious gusto,  including stellar work from Susanne Sheston's choral forces, and the glinting sheen and color of conductor Emmanuel Villaume’s orchestra, the belly laughs make for an amusing evening, even as, on occasion, they overwhelm quieter moments in the music’s shifting textures that want to dwell in more serious regions. (Much of Act II had been composed a decade earlier for other operatic projects, hence the work's occasional mood swings.)

Flattering the Czar. Photo: Paul Horpedahl
Paul Hackenmueller’s subtle lighting brought out the radiance in Gary McCann’s fanciful Russian costumes. His set's Russian-egg curves surrounded the characters, reinforcing the folk-like feel. A carpet screen covered the stage and angled diagonally back and up to the left as a sheet for Driscoll Otto's colorful projections: at turns an oriental carpet, an outdoor forest, a King’s court and, projected on its uplifted end, the warnings of the Cockerel to the Czar (sung off-stage). The Cockerel image worked best for those seated in the center and right side of the house; it went unregistered as a visual image for those on the left.

Accolades for the evening’s most impressive performance went to stellar soprano Venera Gimadieva as the Queen of Shemakha, who sang with bright luster her “Hymn to the Sun,” a beguiling paean to Nature. Her entrance in the second act had been preceded by what appeared to be side-by-side gliding swans, late of a Tchaikovsky ballet, their fluffy overhead feathers worthy of a Las Vegas act. (In the context of the farce, this seemed a self-consciously spoofy throwback to some of the Santa Fe Opera's campy productions of yesteryear.)

Shemakha's later seduction scene was worthy of a grown-up Salome, who would seem to have picked up a successful trick or two on the art of striptease. (The infamous Strauss opera had premiered just four years before Rimsky's.) A clumsy staging decision, however, had Shemakha traipsing around half naked for the remainder of the second act, losing some of her (genuinely earned) titillation mojo with overexposure. Credit, nonetheless, genuine star Gimadieva's stoic trooping.

A throne too big for a king: Photo: Paul Horpedahl
Baritone Tim Mix’s Czar Dodon, in fire-engine red tights stuffed with the contents of several pillows, mounted a huge, gold-gilted throne far larger than his feeble powers could command. Eric Owens had initially been announced for the role; while Mix does not possess quite the latter’s massive voice for a full dose of Russian gravitas, he portrayed energetically its tottering fool. His round of hand-shaking suggested the insincere bravura of a certain current president.

High altitude character-tenor Barry Banks, as the Astrologer, emoted all the charm of a spidery con-artist as he set about his web-spinning business with the feeble Czar. Soprano Kasia Borowiec was the chirpy voice of the Golden Cockerel, but one missed what a live characterization by her could have brought to the role had it not been just a flickering screen image for only some to see.

Tenor Richard Smagur as Prince Guidon and baritone Jorge Espino as Prince Afron made the most of their roles as silly Russian versions of Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Solid and solemn bass Kevin Burdette gave in his General Polkan one of the few sympathetically human roles in the tale.

The crumbling of Imperial Russia a century ago, filtered through the colorful farce of this evening, holds a cautionary tale for us closer to home.


Photos used by permission of the Santa Fe Opera.
Performance reviewed: July 19, 2017

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