The Golden Cockerel / Le Coq D’Or

Les Saisons Russes du XXIe Siècle
Natalia Sats Moscow State Musical Academic Children's Theatre
London Coliseum

Le Coq D'Or / The Golden Cockerel Credit: Valerie Komissarova
Le Coq D'Or / The Golden Cockerel Credit: Elena Lapina
Oleg Fomin as Tsar Dodon, Pavel Okunev as Le Coq D'Or / The Golden Cockerel Credit: Elena Lapina
Design for Le Coq D'Or / The Golden Cockerel

Andris Liepa with his Les Saisons Russes du XXIe Siècle rocks into the Coliseum again to blind us with colour and chat. Full marks for effort.

He must be commended on his persistence: “It’s been a very long standing dream of mine to reconstruct The Golden Cockerel. It was Mikhail Fokine’s last work for Sergei Diaghilev’s Russian Seasons and it stunned his contemporaries not only with its unusual combination of the opera and ballet genres, but also with an amazing set design by Natalia Goncharova.”

Palekh box fairy tale scenes, red, gold and black Khokhloma folk art on wooden bowls and homely furniture, Lubok prints, traditional embroidery and national costume—the quintessentially Russian primitive ethnic visual spectrum of Goncharova’s delirious designs, and storybook props—wooden horse, carriage, bed and throne, wooden swords and woolly beards, skew-whiff crown—make for a stunning show to please all ages.

Performed by orchestra under Alevtina Ioffe’s baton, chorus, ballet and soloists of the Natalia Sats (a formidable woman, victim of repression, pioneer of quality children’s theatre, commissioner of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf…) Moscow State Musical Academic Children's Theatre, the singers are quality, but the audience has its work cut out.

Eyes on the quaintly translated surtitles, on the singers, or on the pantomimic dance dumb show?

Little of Fokine’s ballet has survived, so this is in the style of, choreographed by Gali Abaidulov, co-directed and staged by Liepa and Gregoriy Isaakyan, and the dance is more mummer’s delight than balletic splendour.

Apart from the Golden Cockerel himself, Pavel Okunev, who has tremendous ballon, the ballet element is a piece of comic buffoonery, as is the satiric tale.

The Astrologer gives Tsar Dodon (Oleg Fomin), a childish lazy so-and-so who likes his creature comforts, a golden cockerel that will crow when the enemy from the east is nigh. Since the twelfth century of Prince Igor’s Lay against the Polovtsians, it has always been the enemy from the east.

Here it is Queen of Shemakha (Natalia Savelieva) who seduces the silly Tsar into marriage after his equally useless sons have been killed on the battlefield. But, the Astrologer wants his reward for saving the day. And the reward is the Queen.

In a fit of temper Tsar Dodon kills the Astrologer, and the Cockerel strikes him down in turn. The people chorus sings what will we do without the tsar our father. The Queen vanishes, and there’s the moral tale, young people, it may be all lies, but here’s the truth. Only he, the Astrologer, and the Queen were real.

Singers in evening dress front stage, their voices bringing the visual element behind them simultaneously to life in comic strip representation, impresario Liepa has added a nice touch: the Astrologer singer, who opens and closes the show, is Diaghilev in silk scarf and top hat.

Difficult to tell from the double and triple cast list, but I think it is Olesya Titenko who commands the singing. Her coloratura soprano Queen of Shemakha is the Queen of the Night.

Natalia Eliseeva is a wonderful contralto housekeeper Amelfa, and Zarina Samadova the high soprano Cockerel. Petr Sokolov hits the high notes as the Astrologer, and Alexander Tsilinko and Nikolay Petrenko the low as Tsar Dodon and General Polkan, whilst tenor and baritone Sergey Petrishchev and Denis Boldov, the two princes Gvidon and Afron, bring up the rear in lovely comic show.

For his third visit to the Coliseum, master showman Liepa celebrates his idol, and one suspects role model, Diaghilev, his flair and magical touch, in a six-day festival dedicated to his name.

Petrushka, Polovtsian Dances, Chopiniana, Scheherazade to come, but the opening and crowning glory of the short season has to be Le Coq D’Or, presented by Diaghilev in Paris exactly a century ago.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s infrequently performed opera, Zolotoi Petushok / The Golden Cockerel, based on Alexander Pushkin’s fairy tale poem, with witty euphemistic libretto by Vladimir Belsky, in 1914 was given the full Diaghilev treatment: choreography by Fokine, designs by Goncharova and her partner Mikhail Larionov.

A fauvist feast for the eyes, a riot of colour, for many ballet fans the reasons to see it are Goncharova’s faux naïf folkloric art designs (scenery and costumes reconstructed by Vyachslav Okunev), but opera buffs must surely want to hear Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian folk melodies woven with tunes of eastern threat and seductive promise.

Composed in 1907, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Golden Cockerel, a satire on the times, the political situation in Russia and the disastrous Russo-Japanese war, was banned by the palace. He was never to see its first performance in 1909 (set designs by Ivan Bilibin). His health ruined, he had passed away the year before.

An interesting aside: Le Coq D’Or has been staged as an opera in 2002 in Paris by Ennosuke Ichikawa, conducted by Kent Nagano—a blending of the two cultures that were at war a century ago…

Reviewer: Vera Liber