mon 15/07/2024

The Golden Cockerel, Diaghilev Festival, London Coliseum | reviews, news & interviews

The Golden Cockerel, Diaghilev Festival, London Coliseum

The Golden Cockerel, Diaghilev Festival, London Coliseum

Musical values outstanding, decor and dance not bad in tribute to Diaghilev opera-ballet

Senile attack: the Astrologer (Ivan Titov) felled by Tsar Dodon (Oleg Fomin)Elena Lapina

Rimsky-Korsakov’s bizarre final fantasy, puffing up Pushkin's short verse-tale to unorthodox proportions, has done better in Britain than any of his other operatic fairy-tales. That probably has something to do with its appearance in Paris, six years after the composer’s death in 1908, courtesy of a brave new experiment marshalled by that chameleonic impresario Sergei Diaghilev.

So you may well have seen the opera staged before: I remember a trapeze-artist cockerel for Scottish Opera, the old tsar kitted out in a purple suit doing a Yeltsin dance for the Royal Opera. Yet unless you’ve come across it in Russia or Germany you won’t have encountered anything like this brave attempt to homage, rather than strictly recreate - hardly possible, since Fokine’s choreography is lost - Diaghilev’s mix of singers in evening wear at the side and dancers centre stage, and above all the half fauvist, half Russian folk designs of that great genius Natalia Goncharova (original design for Act 1 pictured below).

Goncharova design for The Golden CockerelI feared the worst. After all, Andris Liepa’s attempt to conjure up another Ballets Russes extravaganza, Le Dieu bleu, was a mess on every front – tacky, gaudily lit daubs meant to evoke the Bakst designs, vapid choreography and poor dancing. But the shift this time to what I’m going to call, for economy’s sake, the Natalia Sats Children’s Theatre of Moscow has yielded higher quality all round. It’s mind-blowing to think that this company, founded specifically to educate kids and teenagers by the great director who commissioned Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, can yield such high standards.

The house orchestra is stupendously good – supple strings, weighty trombones and penetrating trumpets, vivid woodwind arabesques – and guided with such authority by chief conductor Alevtina Yoffe that a work which can sag moves forward handsomely at every stage, with very clear cues to the excellent chorus. Yes, it's a "she", of whom Sats would be proud, and puts first completely to shame and then out of mind the asinine misogyny of Vasily Petrenko and Yuri Temirkanov. Another Russian anomaly, then, of the kind which Tom Birchenough describes in his take on the Russian film industry.

The idea, adapting the original concept, of singers who double the danced and costumed roles, probably playing a much greater part than back in 1914, takes some getting used to: where do you look, especially when there are surtitles to grapple with too? But when the sometimes undisciplined dancing flags, you can take pleasure in a concert performance – semi-staged, since there’s a fair bit of acting out at the front of the stage. Last night’s cast – astonishing but not untypical that the company can field two, sometimes three singers in each role over three nights – was uniformly excellent. The weird Astrologer who frames the action, in one of Rimsky’s many strangenesses, is a very specific kind of high tenor, and Ruslan Yudin perfectly embodies what the composer must have expected: full and powerful in the altino register, with just a couple of acceptable falsettos.

Scene from The Golden CockerelLiepa presents him as a Diaghilevian impresario, fine since he’s one of the two characters with some flesh and blood. The other is the Queen of Shemakha, symbol of the catastrophic lure of the east as she seduces the lethargic old Tsar Dodon towards disaster (eastern imperial campaigns were on both Pushkin’s and Rimsky-Korsakov’s minds nearly a century apart). Reading Cyril Beaumont’s vivid description of the June 1914 London premiere, it’s clear that Tamara Karsavina’s siren, full of "sly cynicism", was a manipulator of the Russian puppets around her. Not a trace of that remains in Gali Abaidulov’s choreography: dancer Natalia Savalieva’s queen is just a lithe beauty, clad like her attendants as a conventional if graceful titillator in a costume which isn’t a patch on the one Karsavina wore: the potential feminist point of a clever diva wooed by two old men - a weird enough operatic premise for a love triangle anyway - is almost lost.

Making amends is the singer Olga Butenko, a high, bright soprano of a vey specifically Russian timbre, agile in all but the insanely high notes (D and E in alt) which at least she gamely tries rather than substitung or taking them down the octave. She acts out her part with a Cheshire-cat smile, the only snag being that true bass Dmitry Pochapskiy is too young, tall and handsome for the vocal soul of the silly old fool (well mimed, and danced, too, by Dmitry Kruglov). All the other voices are outstanding, led by the piercing cockerel cries of Nataliya Donskaya. Her dance equivalent Mikhael Galiev (scene above by Valerie Komissarova) isn’t quite up to the mark, hideously clad, again so surely – and in this case I’ve not seen the original design – a long way from what Diaghilev and Goncharova envisaged.

Goncharova design from 1910The Goncharova designs are only partly realized by Vyacheslav Okunev. The drop curtain, a motif the artist had used earlier in preliminary designs for Stravinsky's Les noces (pictured right), would look wonderful if the first of several cheap lighting effects weren’t shone on it. For the action, Liepa and Abaidulov animate the corps de ballet in their toybox colours rather too often, showing us what they know of Fokine’s ensemble dances in The Firebird and Petrushka.

Nothing here, then, to ruffle the predator feathers of hatemongering culture minister Vladimir Medinsky, who has the nerve to address us as “dear friends” on the second page of the programme. And Sats’s theatre, by its very nature, can rely on state funding – about which I’m glad, because its musical standards are very high indeed. The company deserves a bigger audience than it got last night. It will be worth going to the ballets to come at least to hear what Ioffe and the orchestra make of the rich scores involved. If you’re just interested in the dancing, though, you may be a bit disappointed.

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