With exceptional cast and ingenious staging, Rimsky’s “Golden Cockerel” takes flight at Santa Fe Opera

August 04, 2017
By Charles T. Downey
Venera Gimadieva and Tim Mix in Rimsky-Korsakov's "The Golden Cockerel" at Santa Fe Opera. Photo: Ken Howard

Venera Gimadieva and Tim Mix in Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Golden Cockerel” at Santa Fe Opera. Photo: Ken Howard

There may be no Richard Strauss or Mozart at Santa Fe Opera this year, but the company’s tradition of presenting a lesser-known opera of the 20th century continues. This summer it is the belated Santa Fe debut of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s final opera, The Golden Cockerel, heard Thursday night. With an entrancing staging enhanced by elaborate video projections and a cast of exceptional vocal power, it is an experience not to be missed.

The libretto by Vladimir Belsky is based on Alexander Pushkin’s poem The Tale of the Golden Cockerel, from 1834. It concerns an inept, child-like ruler, Tsar Dodon, who is obsessed with foreigners at his borders. He enjoys playing off his advisers, including his two equally inept sons, against one another as they vie for his approval on every decision. A general finally establishes some order, but only for a time, as the Tsar is easily controlled by the flattery of a new foreign wife. It ran afoul of imperial censors, delaying the opera’s premiere until after the composer’s death. The story may be familiar to Americans since Pushkin’s source was a story by Washington Irving in Tales of the Alhambra.

Tim Mix showed a moderate but well-aimed baritone as Tsar Dodon. The singer made an aptly buffoonish ruler, with his red fat suit and oversized, gold-plated throne (scenic and costume design by Gary McCann) complementing his infantile mannerisms. He was coddled by the excellent Amelfa of Meredith Arwady, the nursemaid who spoons food into his mouth and strokes his head while he naps. The Michigan-born contralto’s voice had volcanic power, down to her brawny, deep chest voice.

Making the most distinguished company debut of the season was Russian soprano Venera Gimadieva. As the Tsaritsa of Shemakha, the magical seductress who convinces Tsar Dodon to marry her, she deployed her ample, beautiful voice in a velvety legato. The intonation in the role’s many chromatic vagaries was on target, with only some flatness in the exposed opening of her Prayer to the Sun. The top notes, especially the high E way off the staff near the end of the second act, were precise and brilliant.

The seduction scene, in which the Tsaritsa describes examining the beauty of her own body, is meant to be ridiculous, and Gimadieva got many laughs. As she removed articles of clothing, however, replacing her initial costume, complete with Turandot-like headdress, with a revealing two-piece costume, the laughter diminished. It was easy to see how she could lead the Tsar by the nose, literally making him dance to her tune like an ox (although here with her ensemble made up of ladies with ostrich-feather fans, rather than the problematic moors or “black boys” indicated in the libretto).

The supporting cast was also strong, starting with tenor Barry Banks in the high-flying “tenor altino” part of the Astrologer, who gives the Tsar the gift of a magical golden cockerel. The title bird was given bright, shrill voice, mostly off-stage, by Kasia Boroweic, a talented apprentice singer hailing from Summit, New Jersey. Among the fawning court, tenor Richard Smagur, another gifted apprentice, had a particularly full sound as the Tsar’s eldest son, Tsarevich Gvidon. Bass Kevin Burdette added a fine comic turn as the mustache-twirling General Polkan.

Emmanuel Villaume, who conducted a beautiful La Fanciulla del West last season, led an extraordinarily nuanced performance of this gorgeous score, what scholar Nicolas Slonimsky called “the work of a musical Merlin in its vibrant harmonic textures and serpentine scales.” The prismatic sound from harps, celeste, and metallic percussion was especially vivid, and the woodwinds slithered exotically through the many augmented chords, chromatic runs, and melodies heavy in augmented seconds.

Paul Curran has made another handsome staging, co-produced by the Dallas Opera. A rather plain modernistic set of metallic-gray steel supports becomes the screen for strikingly effective and sophisticated video projections (designed by Driscoll Otto), especially the fantastical green lightning that heralds the arrival of the Tsaritsa.

The video offered an ingenious solution to staging problems, from the golden cockerel itself–portrayed by a dancer in Diaghilev’s ground-breaking production–the Tsar’s dream vision of the Tsaritsa in Act I, and the procession of otherworldly creatures accompanying her in Act III, the latter featuring outstanding singing from the Santa Fe Opera Chorus. The only other modernization in the staging is the re-costuming of the Tsar, in a distinctive business suit and large red tie, accompanied by the Tsaritsa in a white pants suit.

Formidable scholar Richard Taruskin has called The Golden Cockerel a “trifling parody,” lamenting the “unpleasant irony” that its place in the West has “greatly distorted perceptions of Rimsky’s work and the evaluation of his achievement.” One can only hope that Santa Fe Opera will present more of the composer’s operas in coming seasons.

The Golden Cockerel runs through August 18. santafeopera.org

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