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CD Review

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakoff

Mariinsky Blu-ray 596

The Golden Cockerel

  • Vladimir Feliauer - Tsar Dodon
  • Aida Garifullina - Queen of Shemakha
  • Andrei Serov - General Polkan
  • Kira Loginova - The Golden Cockerel
  • Andrei Popov - The Astrologer
  • Andrei Ilyushnikov - Tsarevich Guidon
  • Vladislav Sulimsky - Tsarevich Afron
  • Elena Vitman - Amelfa, the Housekeeper
  • Yelizaveta Shamatrina - A Parrot
Mariinsky Chorus & Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
Stage Director/Costume Designer - Anna Matison
Production Designers - Anna Matison, Sergei Novikov
Lighting Designer - Alexander Sivayev
Recorded Live at Mariinsky Theater II, St. Petersburg, Russia December 27, 2014
Mariinsky Blu-ray & DVD Discs MAR0596 1:59:01
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Using a libretto by Vladimir Belsky (drawn on an 1834 poem by Alexander Pushkin), Nikolai Rimsky-Korakov composed The Golden Cockerel in 1906-07, intending it as a satire on the Tsar, Russian Imperialism and the recently concluded Russo-Japanese War (1904-05). Not surprisingly, the opera was banned for a time and its delayed premiere took place in 1909, a year after Rimsky died. The work, the last of his sixteen operas, is tuneful and features the composer's typically colorful and often exotic orchestration as well as his dependably skilled vocal writing. That said, it is not one of those operas that will likely move you in the way Boris Godunov can. Not that it's lacking in any significant way, but it is mostly light and occasionally you sense that some of the music, subtle and finely wrought though it is, can strike you as warmed over Rimsky. Still, it must be counted among the composer's strongest operas and should be better known. Rimsky mavens and Valery Gergiev fans will already know that this is a most welcome issue.

Welcome, indeed: there have only been a handful of recordings of this opera in recent decades and so almost any new issue, in any format, must be greeted enthusiastically, especially one led by Gergiev. His only other serious competition on video is a 2002 performance from Le Châtelet in Paris on Arthaus Musik conducted by Kent Nagano. I have not heard it but I understand it has generally received high praise. This new Mariinsky issue has one advantage over the Arthaus: like other recent video recordings from Mariinsky, it offers both Blu-ray and DVD discs, and for a price at or below what you'd pay for a single Blu-ray video disc, at least from certain retailers.

Before delving into the performance, let me give a brief summary of the opera's story, since many readers are likely unfamiliar with it. The incompetent King (or Tsar) Dodon, ever worried about attack from enemy forces, is presented with a golden cockerel by the Astrologer, who tells the King the bird will alert him whenever danger arises. The King is grateful and tells the Astrologer he will grant him any wish. The Astrologer prefers to delay making his wish. The cockerel soon crows to warn the King of impending attack and the King and his sons go off to war. The sons are killed but the King meets the Queen of Shemakha, who beguiles him with her charm and beauty. He proposes marriage and the two head home along with his retinue. At the palace the Astrologer at last asks the King to grant the wish he is owed: he asks for the Queen of Shemakha for himself. The King refuses and attempts to placate him with other offers. The Astrologer presses him to grant the wish and the King eventually strikes him down. The cockerel then attacks the King and he too is struck down. The Astrologer appears and tells all that what they have witnessed was not real but mere fantasy. Only he and the Queen are real.

Well, fantasy it is, but biting satire too, especially in its day. Of course, the satire is lost on us now, isn't it? It isn't? Well, perhaps some will see symbolism in the story of a universal nature that can be tied to current events and politics in many parts of our troubled world. Speaking of symbolism, there is quite a lot injected by Stage Director Anna Matison: for example, the parrot wearing a court jester's cap and the presence of the crab in Act III, both slightly puzzling touches here; but the comically huge steeple-topped hats are rather obvious but good ones, as are the snake tree and the magical flowers in the second act. The King's palace is set inside a gigantic treasure chest, another obvious symbol but a very effective and colorful one. Effective too are the computer generated images and other visual effects, and the entire fairy-tale world created by Matison via the sets, costuming, lighting and pantomimic movements of the characters.

At the beginning of the opera, even before the music begins, we see the Golden Cockerel character, brilliantly sung and acted by Kira Loginova, dressed in modern day attire (with a Golden Cockerel backpack strapped to her), approaching the big treasure chest. She has a smart device, takes a selfie and soon enters the kingdom with the Astrologer. Is she a sort of Wizard of Oz Dorothy who willingly leaves her world to enter a fantasy one? You can probably see that this is one opera that functions on two levels: it has serious satire for adults and much fairy tale fun for kids. The camera panning across the audience revealed a good many children present during this live Mariinsky performance.

I've already mentioned the fine performance of Kira Loginova, but I must also lavish high praise on Aida Garifullina, truly the perfect Queen of Shemakha as she conveys beauty, cunning and irresistible charm. Her opening aria, Hymn to the Sun, is beautifully sung, perhaps the highlight of the opera. Both she and Loginova may well have highly successful careers on the world's operatic stages. Vladimir Feliauer is fine as the King and Andrei Serov delivers an effective performance as the Astrologer, though he at times overdoes the town crier style of singing.

Gergiev employs moderate to slightly brisk tempos and draws an excellent performance from the orchestra, the chorus contributing splendid work too. The sound reproduction is excellent, and the picture clarity and camera work are also quite fine. You can't go wrong with this new Mariinsky account of The Golden Cockerel. Highly recommended!

Copyright © 2017, Robert Cummings

Trumpet