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RIMSKY-KORSAKOV: The Golden Cockerel

DVD Button Gimadieva, Tehoval, Zwierko; Hunka, Kravets, Dolgov, Shushakov, Vassiliev; Orchestre Symphonique et Chœurs de la Monnaie, Altinoglu. Production: Pelly. BelAir Classiques BAC147, 118 mins., subtitles

Greed Trumps All

Laurent Pelly’s dark production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s satirical fable is about the tragedy of people who have blind faith in an avaricious leader.

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You’re the puppet!: Hunka, Demarthe and Gimadieva in Brussels
Courtesy La Monnaie de Munt
Recordings Golden Cockerel cover 918
Critics Choice Button 1015

IN NICOLAI Rimsky-Korsakov’s satirical fairy tale, the incompetent, infantile Tsar Dodon puts the lives and the safety of his sons, his people and his empire beneath his own desire for power. Lured to self-destruction by the false promises of an Astrologer, the mysterious Tsaritsa of Shemakha and the eponymous singing coq d’or, Dodon embodies the blind corruption and shortsightedness that bring down empires, no matter how strong the foundations. While Rimsky-Korsakov’s score emphasizes Dodon’s role as the fool king, Laurent Pelly’s 2016 production of the opera for La Monnaie, expertly conducted by Alain Altinoglu, brings to the forefront the darker aspects of this story, transforming it into an ominous fable for modern times.

Pelly’s production begins with Dodon lounging in an oversized bed on a mountain of rubble. For most of Acts I and III, Dodon barely leaves this bed, barking orders and making proclamations in his pajamas. From this point of comfort, he can wage war and send his sons to the battlefield while his nurse, Amelfa, feeds him stewed prunes, and the singing rooster, a gift from the Astrologer, lulls him into false security. Sung by Belgian soprano Sheva Tehoval and danced by Sarah DeMarthe, the rooster underlines Dodon’s incompetence, as he puts his trust in a larger-than-life singing chicken. As Dodon, bass-baritone Pavlo Hunka straddles the line between comical and menacing, as demanded by the score and Pelly’s production. Similarly, as his nurse Amelfa, mezzo-soprano Agnes Zwierko transforms an ostensibly benign character into a force of evil as she enables the Tsar’s reckless behavior. 

Most of Act II seems like an elongated duet for Dodon and the Tsaritsa of Shemakha, whose hymn to the sun is perhaps the opera’s best-known excerpt. The rubble from Act I becomes the battlefield, where the real battle is one of wills as the Tsaritsa of Shemakha seduces and manipulates Dodon into surrendering his agency and his empire to her. Venera Gimadieva is Pelly’s ideal Tsaritsa. She sings with calculated precision and coolness and slinks about the stage, projecting something between sensuality and exasperation, until Dodon cedes himself and his people. As played by Gimadieva, the Tsaritsa clearly uses Dodon, pushing him toward his downfall.

In Act III, Dodon is once again in his bed, this time secured onto an army tanker as he and the Tsaritsa roll back into the capital with her entourage of beasts. The Astrologer demands that Dodon repay him for the golden rooster by giving him the Tsaritsa. Dodon refuses and kills the Astrologer before being pecked to death by his golden rooster. Having destroyed Dodon’s empire, the Tsaritsa disappears. For the first time, as the people mourn Dodon’s death, Rimsky-Korsakov’s score is free of satire and seduction. Instead, we hear the people’s genuine lamentation, perhaps not just for their ruler but for themselves. As the sun sets, we see the first real glimpse of color and light in Pelly’s mostly monochromatic production, leaving the audience with the feeling that the opera was not about the fall of Dodon but the tragedy of the people who blindly put their faith in an avaricious leader.  —Steven Jude Tietjen 

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