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The Golden Cockerel

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, libretto by Vladimir Belsky after Pushkin
English Touring Opera
Cambridge Arts Theatre

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Edward Hawkins (Polkan), Grant Doyle (King Dodon) and Alys Mererid Robers (Cockerel) Credit: Richard Hubert Smith
Alys Mererid Robers (Cockerel) and Robert Lewis (Astrologer) Credit: Richard Hubert Smith
Amy J Payne (Nanny) and Grant Doyle (King Dodon) Credit: Richard Hubert Smith
Alys Mererid Roberts (Cockerel), Robert Lewis (Astrologer) and Grant Doyle (King Dodon) Credit: Richard Hubert Smith

If a flippant fairy-tale interpretation of a satire on Russian tyranny and capricious violence now seems grotesquely incongruous at present, the blame cannot be laid at the door of director James Conway who started rehearsals of Rimsky’s angry jibe well before the war in Ukraine.

The composer was incensed by tsarist suppression of the 1905 uprising when he wrote the piece, and it’s impossible to ignore parallels with today especially when the free English translation includes lines such as "Slay the enemy like cattle" and "Where is the enemy? Could it be there is no enemy?"

A screen announcement stated that the performance was dedicated to the people of Ukraine and all striving to bring peace, yet in the farcical, sometimes banal first act, I still felt a sense of unease about the production, however innocently conceived.

Setting this aside, there is much to enjoy, particularly the composer’s atmospheric score, with trippingly light woodwinds (and a heroic stand-in first clarinet) and glockenspiel. Some had criticised the playing early in the tour, but here those trickly arpeggios were played pretty well, including the devilish opening passage for muted trumpet, with conductor Gerry Cornelius bringing out the silky textures to match the piece’s exoticism.

The story, based on Pushkin’s fable, tells how an astrologer gives King Dodon a magic cockerel that can foretell danger in return for a gift that he can choose in the future. The incompetent and indolent king loses his army to that of the Queen of Shemakha, but he is seduced by her charms and marries her. When the astrologer claims the queen as his prize, Dodon kills him, but is in turn pecked to death by the bird.

Neil Irish’s colourful sets and costumes match the richness of the music, with a central tower that serves both as the cockerel’s look-out post and as the Queen’s pavilion. Rory Beaton’s lighting enhances the effect, especially at the start of the second act—the closest we come to the dark side of the conception—when Dodon’s soldiers perish, by now reclothed from tsarist to Soviet uniforms.

Robert Lewis is a stentorian Astrologer, authoritative in voice and manner, revealing himself at the end to be a Rasputin in disguise, albeit one with a detectable Welsh accent.

Star of the show was Luci Briginshaw, playing the Queen for the first time on the tour. Hers is not a huge voice, and her diction could be clearer, but her smooth, seductive tones, with a dark, lower register like a night on the Steppes, held together the over-long second act.

Alys Mererid Roberts cock-a-doodled merrily, and Grant Doyle capped a knockabout performance as Dodon with an amusing dance caper. Thomas Elwin and Jerome Knox got the buffoonery about right as Dodon’s sailor-suited dotard sons. Edward Hawkins rather overdid it as General Polkan, and Amy J Payne was given a tough brief to massage the fat-suited king, although both were in fine form vocally.

Not all the comic effects worked—one erectile cannon became a limp (forgive me) joke—but with the performance lasting little more than two hours, including an interval, the orchestral colour, designs and some find singing kept me engaged.

The show continues to Chester, Snape Maltings, Durham, Eastbourne, Norwich, Exeter and Bath.

Reviewer: Colin Davison