Sunday, 26 February 2017

Rimsky-Korsakov - The Golden Cockerel (La Monnaie, 2016)

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov - The Golden Cockerel

La Monnaie-De Munt, 2016

Alain Altinoglu, Laurent Pelly, Pavlo Hunka, Alexey Dolgov, Alexander Vassiliev, Agnes Zwierko, Alexander Kravets, Venera Gimadieva, Konstantin Shushakov, Sheva Tehoval, Sarah Demarthe, John Manning, Marcel Schmitz, Marc Coulon

The Opera Platform - December 2016

These are undoubtedly strange times we are living through at the moment, so it's probably not a surprise that our views on artistic expression can be coloured and filtered by what is currently going on in the world. Who would have thought however that Rimsky-Korsakov's comic fairytale opera The Golden Cockerel could ever again be anything more than a satire on an obscure conflict long ago in a far off part of the world? Oh, how we used to laugh at the ridiculous ruler Dodon (now there's a name that is looking a little too close to reality for comfort) trying to keep foreign enemies out of his country and petulantly exclaiming "Laws? Don't know the meaning of the word. My whims and orders are the law".

But of course, Rimsky-Korsakov's satire was indeed based on reality of Russian imperialism, militarism during the Russo-Japanese war. That could perhaps account for its uncanny accuracy and relevance, revealing in the process how history has an unfortunate way of repeating itself. But let's not get either too carried away or demoralised at what seems to be a scarily realistic look at the Trump administration, or at least not just yet. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's opera is a delightful, colourful confection of amusing scenes and sparkling music, and representing that more so than any attempts at satire or contemporary relevance seems to be the main purpose of Laurent Pelly's production for La Monnaie in Brussels.

The set designs for Pelly's production of The Golden Cockerel are typically gorgeous, with bold cartoony figures that bring a comic energy to the work. And yet -not unlike his recent DNO production of Chabrier's L'Etoile - behind all the comic capers of stupid, incompetent and paranoid rulers, you can detect a darker and more sinister undercurrent. Tsar Dodon barks out his orders from a silver bed on a small mound of slate-coloured rocks of an almost post-apocalyptic world, his adoring people who never doubt his word all dressed in dark rags. Much of the atmosphere is achieved through Joël Adam's impeccable lighting and colouration, but the cartoon-like figures in outlandish costumes and wigs, and the strutting golden cockerel who calls out whenever the enemy's troops are approaching the border, all stand-out impressively from this background.

There are clearly no overt references to the current US administration in a production that I'm sure was prepared well in advance of its December 2016 performances at La Monnaie, but there is no bouffant combover needed to see the similarities in the dunderheaded policy decisions and arrogance of an incompetent ruler. Dodon's sons look a little like Jedward, and to be honest, I wouldn't rule them out as future candidates for the US President's team of advisors should he have any more firings and resignations. Nothing would surprise me about the Trump administration or indeed how applicable the author and librettist Vladimir Belsky's observations on such an administration seem to be. The Russian references and the 'sleeping with the enemy' aspect of the work however could be much too close for comfort.

Comparing the Tsarita Shemakha to Theresa May on the other hand might be taking contemporary analogies a little too far, but again - and maybe it's just because of the exceptional and deeply uncertain times we are living in at the moment - it's tempting to see something of the deluded British PM's unfathomable mishandling of the Brexit issue in the situations. Shemakha's kingdom is "a small island between sea and sky", where "everything obeys my whim and will (...) but it's all an illusion" and "I'm alone on my dream island". It's a tenuous comparison I admit, but you have to amuse yourself somehow, for as beautiful as Rimsky-Korsakov's music is with its little oriental touches and as pretty as Laurent Pelly's production looks, it's the satire that counts and there's not that much of it brought out here.

If The Golden Cockerel has any fault, it's that there's not much of dramatic interest in the opera. It's the kind of work where you get the message fairly quickly and can then just settle down to enjoy it for the music and hopefully some inspired fairytale visuals to match. By and large, that's what you get here, but not much else. Any 'interpretation' is entirely down to whatever you can apply to it from your own (over-)imagination. The performance at La Monnaie is fine but Alain Altinoglu, in his first opera as the new Music Director of La Monnaie, doesn't really succeed in making the music and the drama come to life. It's good/essential to have Russian leads in this work and Pavlo Hunka and Venera Gimadieva give enjoyable performances as Dodon and Shemakha, but neither are enough to elevate the opera in this production to anything more than just a colourful fairy tale.

Links: La Monnaie, The Opera Platform