Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov - Le Coq d’Or (The Golden Cockerel)
Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, 2002
Kent Nagano, Ennosuke Ichikawa, Isao Takashima, Albert Schagidullin, Ilya Levinsky, Andrei Breus, Ilya Bannik, Elena Manistina, Barry Banks, Olga Trifonova, Yuri Maria Saenz
The Châtelet’s impressive staging of Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel, recorded here in Paris in 2002 (hence the French title) is one that dates back to 1984, a co-production with San Francisco Opera. This recording has already been released on DVD, but it is another one of those productions that are so visually splendid and memorable that it more than merits an upgrade to Blu-ray. Designed by Ennosuke Ichikawa as a Kabuki staging, it’s an impressive production that fits surprisingly well in tone and content with the intentions of the original fairytale opera with a moral.
The opera, Rimsky-Korsakov’s final work, composed in 1906, is based on a Pushkin poem ‘The House of the Weathercock’, and the minimalist simplicity of the set design reflects that transparency of the fairytale’s simple moral message. King Dodon, fearful of his country being invaded by their neighbours and forced by his General to discount the foolish advice of his two sons, puts his trust instead in a Golden Cockerel sold to him by the Astrologer that will crow to warn him when his enemies are about to attack. Despite the warnings of the Cockerel, whose alerts have the king sending armies out to all parts of his kingdom, Dodon fails however to recognise the threat that is posed by the arrival of the Queen of Shemakha. Dodon is “a Tsar in appearance, but a slave in body and soul” when he falls for the Queen’s beauty and allows himself to be seduced by her charms. Acting out of fear, pride, lust, the moral of course is that even noble rulers have basic human weaknesses and are not immune – more likely in fact – to act out of self-interest and for personal gain.
Both Rimsky-Korsakov and the librettist V. Bel’sky laid down very specific remarks about how The Golden Cockerel should be performed (these notes are reproduced in the accompanying booklet in the BD and DVD releases), which as well as disapproving of any cuts to the work or the introduction of any additional interjections by the singers – as might be expected – note that the purpose of the work is “undoubtedly symbolic” and that the purely human character its intent “allows us to place the plot in any surroundings and in any period”, recognising however that there is an essential Russian character involved. It’s clear then that this production, even if it has a somewhat more oriental flavour, is nonetheless completely faithful to the original intentions and even perhaps recognises that the opera was inspired by the conflict between Russia and Japan in 1904 at the time the opera was composed. The suggestions of military incompetence on the part of the authorities would in fact lead to the opera being banned by the censor, only receiving its premiere after the death of the composer.
The basic stage dressing for this production then is accordingly simple and abstract in the manner of a fable where the moral is symbolic, but it is also extraordinarily beautiful with all the magic and fascination of a fairytale. If the stage then consists of little more than a brightly luminous backdrop to reflect the time of day or mood, and there is little on the stage but some steps to suggest a royal palace and stylised trees to represent the kingdom, the colourful costumes and Kabuki make-up reflect the larger-than-life characters and, to a large extent, Rimsky-Korsakov’s rich romantic scoring of the work, filled with fantastical melodies and folk influences, with leitmotifs and a Scheherazade-like middle-Eastern exoticism. It’s given a wonderful warm account here at the Châtelet with Kent Nagano conducting.
The space is needed on the stage moreover to contain all the extras, chorus and dancers – all beautifully costumed – and give room to the principals, because this is after all to a large extent a singer’s opera (rather than say a dramatic opera or a conceptual one), with a wonderful range of voices and expression from bass declamation to soprano coloratura. Using a mainly Russian cast, those roles are in good hands in this Châtelet production, with bass Albert Schagidullin as King Dodon and Olga Trifonova the Queen of Shemakha. In among all those Russians however is Barry Banks, perfectly cast for the specific demands of the high tenor role of the Astrologer. It’s particularly delightful that the singing is of a very high standard throughout, but this is a wonderful production on just about every level.
This beautiful, colourful production certainly benefits from its upgrade to Blu-ray for the High Definition 16:9 widescreen image and for the sound mixes in PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 that put over the qualities of the orchestration and singing. It’s really quite breathtaking. The Blu-ray is All-Region, 1080i, a BD25 disc with no extra features, although the booklet is informative and includes a synopsis. Subtitles are English, German, Italian, French, Spanish and Chinese.