April 2022

Noted

‘The Golden Cockerel’

By Miriam Cosic
Image from ‘The Golden Cockerel’
Barrie Kosky’s Adelaide production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera satirising the Russo-Japanese War came with uneasy resonances

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov wrote his last opera, The Golden Cockerel, in protest against Russia’s war with Japan. He wrote it a year before his death in 1908 and spent his final months battling the Russian censorship agency. He never saw it performed.

Before The Golden Cockerel’s Australian premiere at this year’s Adelaide Festival, it was caught in controversy of the same flavour as the world called for a boycott of everything Russian days into the war in Ukraine. The festival continued with the program, and did so with the blessing of its Russian and Ukrainian singers. The Ukrainians told the Australian press that performing it is in itself a protest against Russia’s new war. The Russians stayed cautiously quiet.

This version of the Cockerel, recently debuted in Aix-en-Provence, is masterful. It is directed by Australian expatriate Barrie Kosky, who was intendant of the Schauspielhaus Wien and then the Komische Oper Berlin, before returning to full-time freelance directing in Berlin. Those who remember his wild and controversial productions for Opera Australia can see how his years in the heartlands of German opera have honed and matured his craft.

Here, his production is minimalist, with a single set throughout the three acts. He has injected just enough silliness (the chorus as soldiers, wearing giant horses’ heads that cover their bodies, canter and dance and generally fool around) to remind us both that the opera is satire and that Kosky is at the helm.

The curtain rises on two small hillocks divided by a road, with a pale wash of distant hills on the walls behind. There is one gnarled tree on the stage, bare of leaves. The Tsar is there, rambling to himself, filthy in an old grey pair of pants and an oversized singlet that keeps slipping off his shoulders, with a golden crown on his head. His horse-head troops come and go, including his trusted general. His two young sons, dressed in smart modern-day business suits, visit him and vie for influence.

The bass-baritone Pavlo Hunka is exquisite as the Tsar, cutting a pathetic figure who yet retains vestiges of the powerful man he must have once been. His voice strengthens and fades in sync with the weaknesses of old age washing over him.

And then the strange figure of the Astrologer arrives, his beard waist-length, his white hair in a bun, and wearing a 19th-century woman’s dress. He offers the Tsar a golden cockerel that will crow like clockwork if all is well but will warn him if danger approaches. All the Astrologer asks for in return is that his greatest wish be granted when he comes to ask for it. And another masterful performance ensues: Russian tenor Andrei Popov turns vocal acrobatics around the score, singing calmly and purposefully one moment, and up to hysterical falsetto the next. His acting and his portrayal of old age, much more debilitated than the Tsar, is persuasive. The role of the cockerel is split between the onstage tree-climbing Matthew Whittet and the offstage soprano Samantha Clarke.

Lyric soprano Venera Gimadieva is quietly stunning as the Tsarina of Chemakha. She taunts and flirts, with a coloratura that is melting but not cruelled by too much vibrato. The comedy here is ambiguous, involving the awful derision of an old man’s sexual desire for a young woman as well as the political satire of a once-mighty ruler trying to resurrect his personal power.

This wouldn’t be Kosky without a touch of camp, and that comes in the form of four hunky dancers, in silver glitter loincloths and caps, dancing up a storm. That the principals are all Russian speakers means the libretto is saturated with a marvellous fluency, even as they push their vocalisation to add to the dramatisation. Conducted by Estonian Arvo Volmer, the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, often under-recognised, is excellent.

The Golden Cockerel raises laughs, but there are also silences as the satire is penetrated to reveal the sad realities of life. And there are even deeper, uneasier silences as the opera conjures Russia’s foreign policy stance today.

Miriam Cosic

Miriam Cosic is a Sydney-based journalist and author.

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