Librettist: Vladimir Belsky
Director/Producer: Barrie Kosky
Orchestre de l'Opéra de Lyon
Tsar Dodon: Dimitry Ulyanov
Shemakha Queen: Nina Minasyan
Astrologist: Vasily Efimov
Aphron: Adrey Zhilikhovsky
Gvidon: Vasily Efimov
Polkan: Mischa Schelomianski
Amlefa: Margarita Nebrasova
Voice of the golden cockerel: Maria Nazarova
Body of the golden cockerel: Wilfried Gonon
Chorus: Chœur de l'Opéra de Lyon
“Never say never”, that’s what I was thinking as I was sitting down next to my mom in the Théâtre de l’Archevêché last Wednesday night at the personally unthinkable hour of… 10 PM, after two invitations to the final dress rehearsal of Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel had unexpectedly fallen on my lap, and who was I to say no? So I said yes. And that’s how, after some last-minute schedule adjustment, a tentative disco nap and a substantial dinner, we were ready for what would be, this time for sure, the last opera of my first Festival international d’art lyrique d'Aix-en-Provence since the month-long event ended on Sunday.
I did not know anything about The Golden Cockerel until it appeared on the festival’s program this year, and while I am a big fan of Russian music and always open to discovering new works, it did not feel like an absolute priority, until I was made an offer I simply could not refuse, that is. Moreover, my subsequent quick and totally informal survey taught me that while the opera is not very well-known, it is apparently worth-knowing. As an additional bonus, my inquiries also landed some interesting findings, such as a former Russian colleague having read the story as a child but having never heard of the opera, and my dad being given a recording of it by his mom when he was a teenager, and still remembering most of it. The man will never cease to surprise me!
My first piece of intel about The Golden Cockerel informed me that it is based on a fairy tale in verse by Alexander Pushkin, which Rimsky-Korsakov turned into a sharp satire of Russian imperialism. That certainly sounded like an intriguing enough combination, which on top of it would probably open the door to all kinds of possibilities when it comes to staging it. Plus, an intermission-free two-hour performance would enable the show to briskly go on, and us to go back home at a semi-reasonable hour for opera buffs in summer (since apparently nobody in summer opera audiences have to go to work the next morning).
Although the golden cockerel of the title has a pivotal role in the story, the opera’s main character is the hapless Tsar Dodon, whose laziness and sloppiness were made obvious as soon as the opera began by the quite disgusting ragtag outfits he was wearing. But while Russian bass Dimitry Ulyanov did not shy away from the Tsar’s unkemptness, his singing, all deep shades and emotional weight, was almost too magnificent for the part. Faced with what was essentially a daunting one-man show, he nevertheless went the whole distance with remarkable stamina and steadiness.
The biggest distraction in his life was indisputably his encounter with the spell-binding and yet resolutely unattainable Shemakha Queen, to whom Armenian coloratura soprano Nina Minasyan gave dazzling vocal and physical life. Clad in a form-fitting sparkly dress and a high-feathered headdress, she looked like she was coming straight out of a Folies Bergères revue. Only that instead of the brash appeal of a showgirl, her artlessly luminous voice and discreetly tantalizing dance moves, not to mention her leg coquettishly sticking out as she was sitting down, couldn’t help but bring to mind the elusive eroticism of Scheherazade, this other powerfully seductive heroine of Rimsky-Korsakov.
We regretfully did not get the planned astrologist, Russian tenor Andrei Popov, due to the latest COVID-related restrictions, so we ended up with Russian tenor Vasily Efimov singing the part from the wings while a stand-in was going through the character’s motions on the stage. But hey, that’s what you get when you attend a work-in-progress during a never-ending pandemic.
The same Vasily Efimov was just as resourceful in his official role of Tsarevich Gvidon, one of the tsar’s two constantly-fighting-till-death-did-them-apart sons (Abel and Cain anyone?), AKA the nice one; Moldavian baryton Andrey Zhilikhovsky was equally efficient as his feistier sibling, Tsarevich Aphron. we quickly figured out that nothing good could come out of those two, but little did we know...
Russian talents were decidedly in full force in smaller parts with Russian bass Mischa Schelomianski’s general Polkan and Russian contralto Margarita Nekrasova’s housekeeper Amelfa. Both made the most of their characters with impressive vocal skills and strong stage presence.
And what about the famous golden cockerel? Well, maybe because it was carrying such heavy responsibilities as not only the title role, but also as the foreseer of troubles to come, it took no less than two people to bring him to resounding life: Russian soprano Maria Nazarova provided remarkably loud and clear crowing, whose force only equaled its precision, from the wings. On the stage, the young and limber French actor Wilfried Gonon impersonated a cockerel as fascinating as foreboding, with few but well-calibrated moves, a de rigueur golden crest, and a lot of body paint.
Beautifully contributing to the performance was the fantastic chorus, whose singers appeared as horses of a chess board for the men, as attractive ladies-in-waiting for the women, before they all cavorted in carnivalesque costumes as the kingdom’s people, and eventually stood in sober outfits for the equally sober epilogue, always impeccably fitting in.
Although the original tale was unfolding in a quintessentially Russian context, Australian director Barrie Kosky judiciously decided to focus on its universality by coming up with a slightly surreal set à la Tim Burton, consisting of a landscape featuring a steep slope, countless bamboos and a dead tree, that looked in fact rather drab until soulful lighting made creative promises come true. As time went on, abstract and real, poetic and burlesque, humans and animals, all regularly interacted in a scenery where anything could happen, and pretty much did.
Never hesitating to go the extra mile without ever going too far, as Kosky added some visually eye-popping touches such as the four Nijinsky-like dancers who sporadically showed up and did their thing in various, err, interesting outfits, including skimpy shimmering loincloths and not much else, or deliciously macabre scenes like the Tsar Dodon having a Hamlet lite moment when playing with his sons’ severed heads while their bodies were hanging upside down from the dead tree nearby. All those uncanny details were not only a feast for the eyes, but also winningly brought out the most unusual aspects of the score.
Faithful to its composer’s mission of mixing illusion and reality, the abundantly lyrical music was full of contrasts, among which stood out, at least to my ears, the earthiness and exoticism of, respectively, western and eastern sounds, as well as the occasional bout of dark humor. In the pit, young and fearless Italian conductor Daniele Rustioni kept everything under control, even during the most challenging passages where the characters could have easily slipped into gross caricatures, and led the orchestra in a confident performance that effortlessly brought out the wild inventiveness of the whole enterprise.
Cocorico to all indeed! Even better, it was all over at the stroke of midnight, and we were able to get some rest before moving on to new adventures.