sat 22/06/2024

The Golden Cockerel, English Touring Opera review - no crowing over this henhouse | reviews, news & interviews

The Golden Cockerel, English Touring Opera review - no crowing over this henhouse

The Golden Cockerel, English Touring Opera review - no crowing over this henhouse

It’s a turkey, but Rimsky-Korsakov is not to blame

Alys Mererid Roberts as the Cockerel, Robert Lewis as the Astrologer and Grant Doyle as Tsar DodonAll images by Richard Hubert Smith

A plea to anyone who was seeing Rimsky-Korsakov’s last opera for the first time at the Hackney Empire: please don’t give up on ever seeing or listening to it again, as some I spoke to afterwards said they just had. I promise you, the fault lies in this production, though not for the most part in the singing.

Pushkin’s original, very succinct, satirical verse fairy tale was a clever kick against the tyranny of Tsar Nicholas I; Rimsky-Korsakov and his librettist Belsky saw the twilight of empire in 1907, though the composer didn’t live to see his opera, so long censored and banned, on the stage. Now we find weird parallels in the aspect of a capricious, treacherous Russian ruler going off on a senseless campaign. ETO Artistic Director James Conway’s production, conceived and put into rehearsal before the onset of the present horrors, starts promisingly close to the opera’s time of composition.The dropcloth homages Konstantin Yuon’s 1921 painting New Planet (pictured below) the Oblomovian, dozing Tsar Dodon (Grant Doyle) has the imperial eagle emblazoned on his corpulent chest, while his idiot sons Gvidon (Thomas Elwin) and Afron (Jerome Knox) are Tweedledum and Tweedledee in junior Tsarist navy kit. Nanny Amelfa (Amy J Payne, spot-on)  will metamorphose into a propagandist army general,in the strongest hit on today's barrage if Kremlin lies. Scene from The Golden CockerelThough we’re held by Neil Irish’s designs, and Rory Beaton's lighting works wonders, the surprisingly small stage of Frank Matcham’s otherwise grandiose, oriental-fantasy-tinged Hackney Empire Auditorium quickly gets overfilled. The disaster strikes in Act Two. This is where the satire should first turn grim: having travelled eastwards beyond his kingdom, Dodon finds his army defeated, bodies pecked at by vultures (the music grimly illustrates this), and his two boys slain. Conway muddies the waters: the sons aren’t exactly dead, the chorus army as individuals rise and fall in messy fashion, even more a travesty of deadly war as the showbiz version I’d winced at the previous evening in the Donmar Henry V.

The lone occupant of this realm, the should-be-mysterious Queen of Shemakha, soon becomes part of the cheap laughs which are never, throughout the whole evening, funny. A tumescent cannon? Spare me. There’s no sense of impending doom, no shocks in the denouement of Act Three, the best, probably because shortest and most action filled, in Korsakov’s over-extended fable.

Voices have promise but the singers are miscast. Dodon needs to be a proper bass; Grant Doyle is a baritone, and though he tries hard to make the gags land, he’s backed a losing horse. The Queen of Shemakha is a high coloratura; Paula Sides (pictured below with a foot on Doyle) has a lyric soprano of darker hue, and though she surprises with the two money notes – a D in the aria, an E towards the end of the act – the high-lying Oriental melismas are uncomfortable for her, forcing flatness (always a peril in this role). I imagine, on the evidence of her hugely impressive performance as Aithra in Fulham Opera’s production of Strauss’s The Egyptian Helen, that Luci Briginshaw should be more at ease when she takes over for two performances on 21 April and 10 May. Scene from Act 2 of ETO Golden CockerelThe Astrologer, uncredited in the programme cast-list, turns out, if you scour the biographies, to be Robert Lewis. The enigmatic role, referred to as a eunuch though not in the translation we hear, was written for tenor altino in the days before countertenors materialized. Lewis manages all but the last top E: try falsetto, perhaps, or take the alternative C sharp? Again, the presentation slightly misses the mark: the Astrologer must at least look very old. But in this production we can only be relieved when he brings down the curtain with his epilogue, manifesting in one last peculiar production gag, as Rasputin to the Tsarina.

The chorus sings very well, but poor direction makes them look like an am-dram bunch. Iain Farrington has done a good job, as usual, on slimming down the orchestration, but this isn’t the right candidate: sensuousness and clouds of mystery are a must, and they’re not to be found in the ETO Orchestra under Gerry Cornelius, despite a good clarinet solo (pray that the muted trumpets in future make a better cock-crow start than they did last night). What happened, not so incidentally, about ETO's unhappy changing of the guard among the players? This team certainly isn't as good as ones I've heard previously.

Belsky’s adoption of Pushkin’s rhyming couplets poses difficulties, and the old translation by James Gibson and Antal Dorati sounds like bad W S Gilbert without the laughs. Sorry to have to say this, and comparisons between a small-scale company and lavish one are unfair, but to get a decent impression of a singular opera, you’d do best to watch the Paris kabuki rendering on YouTube (on DVD too if you want the subtitles). This just isn’t good enough.


Sad to say, I can only endorse every negative judgement in this review, after seeing the production in Sheffield Lyceum on Tuesday 5th April. It was generally well received by the audience, with some enthusiastic whooping from ETO fans (among whom I count myself) but I couldn't join in. I have a fair bit of Russian Opera in my collection, but was one of those who came out of the theatre saying "Won't bother with this again." I'll remain a keen admirer and follower of ETO – I've loved everything of theirs I've ever seen hitherto – but on exit I actually did comment to my companion that this Cockerel turns out to be a turkey.

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