Coq au Vin
English Touring Opera, The Golden Cockerel by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, 5th March 2022, Hackney Empire, directed by James Conway, orchestra conducted by Gerry Cornelius, reviewed by Leslie Jones
For the peace, that I deem’d no peace, is over and done,
And now by the side of the Black and the Baltic deep
And deathful-grinning mouths of the fortress, flames
The blood-red blossom of war with a heart of fire.
Lines from Maud, by Alfred Lord Tennyson
My esteemed companion, on the opening night of The Golden Cockerel, expressed some sympathy for the plight of its hapless cast. They reminded this writer of the passengers trapped in an overturned luxury liner in The Poseidon Adventure. In the film, released in 1972, a charismatic preacher called Frank Scott (memorably played by Gene Hackman) eventually leads the passengers to safety. But no such reprieve or redemption is in store for the cast of this mega-turkey, now on tour. Exeter and Eastbourne await them.
The pivotal problem with this production is the libretto, an English translation by Antal Doráti and James Gibson of Vladimir Belsky’s rendition of Pushkin’s 1834 poem, The Tale of the Golden Cockerel. With rhyming couplets throughout, this libretto is relentlessly unamusing. The story line, too, such as it is, is full of longueurs. English Touring Opera calls itself ‘Opera that moves’. But The Golden Cockerel, allegedly Rimsky’s favourite opera, never moves. Even the ‘Golden Pheasants’ amongst the opera fraternity, out in force on the first night, struggled to find gold in this rarely performed piece. King Dodon’s erotic dance, as performed by baritone Grant Doyle, was particularly irksome. Soprano Paula Sides, as the Queen of Shemakha, had a no less thankless task. Almost everything was played for laughs, despite some darker moments on the battlefield in Act 2. Here, pantomime meets Terry Gilliam, meets magic realism, meets Gilbert and Sullivan.
According to Iain Farrington, who arranged the reduced orchestration, Rimsky-Korsakov created therein “a sound that is beautiful, brilliant and Russian”. Every music lover reveres this composer but his last opera, a satire composed in 1907-08, against a backcloth of war and revolution, was surely a mistake.