The answer is a scintillating version of Rimsky-Korsakov’s rarely performed The Golden Cockerel as lustrously presented by Santa Fe Opera, of course. To succeed with this sometimes knotty and often naughty piece you really need two stars that can carry the evening and boy, did SFO have them in spades.
The remarkable baritone Tim Mix sings and fidgets up a storm in a tireless vocal and physical tour de force as Tsar Dodon. His was just the right ‘Mix’ of buffoonery and bravado, and he skillfully used his sizeable instrument to create an indelible vocal characterization. But Mr. Mix is also capable of important moments that are not larger-than-life, namely, beautiful phrases that bring some humanity to the bumbling monarch. Later in the show, as power has corrupted him, Tim limns his rock solid pontifications with an arrogant cynicism. This is a beautifully schooled voice, a very musical performer, and a committed, inventive actor.
There cannot be a lovelier Queen of Shemakha on this planet, or any planet anywhere, than the delectable Venera Gimadieva. She is a petite, poised, beautiful woman with an alluring physical presence. Is there any other soprano who could pull off (pun intended) a striptease, ending up looking ravishing in a brief two-piece harem get up? And she sings, too!!
Ms. Gimadieva has a sparkling lyric soprano that falls very warmly on the ear on a cool desert mountain night. She has a splendid sense of line and soars above the staff ‘with’ ease, and ‘to’ E’s. Her coloratura is faultless, and her playful way with comic phrases infuses her singing with obvious joy. Moreover she immerses herself into the drama with gusto.
Her shameless, uninhibited vamping of the Tsar was a sensual laff riot. As she invited him over to “her place,” she lustily extolled her tight tent that would enfold him, and promoted the comforts of her furry rug. Guilty (musical) pleasures, indeed. But there was far more to her Queen than shimmies and breast jokes. Venera could turn deadly serious and downright sadistic when called for, whence she successfully weighted her generous soprano with ominous shadings. With this starry match of two stars made in heaven, we truly were in a land of enchantment.
Barry Banks was born to play the Astrologer. The extremely high tessitura of the part holds no terrors for him, and Mr. Banks sang the stratospheric declamations with assured beauty of tone. Coming down from the heavens as Amelfa, Meredith Arwady reveled in vocalizing in the basement. Hers is a nonpareil contralto voice, which is as big as all outdoors: She could be probably be heard in Albuquerque. Happily, Ms. Arwaday is a superb musician, and she weaves her registers and phrases together seamlessly. As the earthy housekeeper, Meredith immerses herself into a bawdy interchange with the Tsar that finds no erogenous zone unmentioned and untouched, all the while singing with potent beauty.
Kevin Burdette can always be counted on to bring his secure bass singing and complete dramatic investment to the proceedings. His assertive, doomsday spouting General Polkan captured just the right combination of wiry physicality and solidly voiced predictions. Apprentice Singers Richard Smagur (Prince Guidon) and Jorge Espino (Prince Afron), more than held their own, imbuing these roles with far more than the usual comprimario natterings. Mr. Smagur has an attractive lyric tenor with a vivid presence, and Mr. Espino sports a virile, ringing baritone. Another Apprentice, Kasia Borowiec, heard but not seen, offered assertive, secure soprano pronouncements as the Golden Cockerel.
Conductor Emmanuel Villaume worked wonders in the pit. The composer was, of course, a master orchestrator and Maestro Villaume mined every ounce of color and excitement out of this diverse score. The ensemble work was ravishing, with the solo work also notable for its characterful flair. The first chair winds were especially exceptional, and their zesty licks added much to the evening’s exotic charms. Villaume led an expansive romp of a reading, sensitive to his soloists and skillful in his handling of the amassed forces, including Susanne Shelton’s suave chorus.
Past successfully met present in the design concept, with Gary McCann’s set a metallic stylized playing space that was a handsome sculpture. A raked square extended and swept up toward the loft stage right, suggesting a high-toned skateboard ramp. For Act II, a massive series of rings and girders was placed upstage suggesting a vertical stacking of roller coaster loops interpreting a rooster’s tail. Smart, eye-catching and effective.
McCann the costume designer created Russian folk (and royalty) wear that provided a riot of color and Old World Atmosphere. The Queen’s afore-mentioned peacock blue diaphanous gown with gold accents, peeled away in layers to reveal a flattering two-piece nod to orientalism. The Tsar was presented as the emperor that has no clothes, caped but beer-bellied in his red BVD’s, an inspired touch. There is a clever costume reveal near the very end with a complete change in tone and period, which I can commend without giving away.
Paul Hackenmueller has provided the premiere lighting design of the festival, with changeable color washes, dramatic use of down and side lighting, discreet deployment of spotlights, and excellent sensitivity to the variable moods. Driscoll Otto devised remarkably apt projections that were really the glue that holds all the elements together. One moment witty and cartoonish, the next lavish folk patterns, the next a swirling galaxy, Mr. Otto’s sterling work was critical to the evening’s impact. But inherent in the skewed placement of the sweeping stage-within-a-stage is the difficulty that the projections requiring the upright “screen” of the stage right “skateboard” to function, are unable to be seen by the 20% of the patrons fanning out house left. Pity that such tremendous work imposed that limitation on itself.
Director Paul Curran has dreamt up a plethora of exhilarating stage business. The Tsar, in BVD’s, is first revealed rising up from a trap, legs splayed sitting on an oversized red velvet and gold throne. If you’re old enough, think Edith Ann on the rocking chair on Laugh In. Nutty, nutty stuff. The King, his doltish sons, General Polkan, and even housekeeper Amelfa scampered on and off this huge piece, ducking under armrests, standing on the seat, jumping to the floor, and climbing back up on the rungs of the braces over and over again. I think the cast must have had to pass a physical exam at a climbing gym. It was as constantly entertaining as it must have been exhausting.
The Queen of Shemakha was announced and accompanied by a bevy of white clad showgirls brandishing white ostrich plume fans, a visual occurring twice in the week’s festival line-up (Fledermaus was the other). What are the odds of two shows in a five opera festival utilizing copious ostrich plume fans? Wish I had had the ostrich plume fan concession. Mr. Curran not only used the chorus creatively to fill longer orchestral passages with meaningful visualization, but also devised lively interplay between the principals that became more sedate as the stakes were raised.
The abundant delights of The Golden Cockerel were such that I didn’t want the noisy bird to wake me up from a production that was a true midsummer night’s dream.
Cast and production information:
Astrologer: Barry Banks; Tsar Dodon: Tim Mix; Prince Guidon: Richard Smagur; General Polkan: Kevin Burdette; Prince Afron: Jorge Espino; First Boyer: Adam Bonanni; Second Boyer: Simon Dyer; Golden Cockerel: Kasia Borowiec; Amelfa: Meredith Arwady; Queen of Shemakha: Venera Gimadieva; Conductor: Emmanuel Villaume; Director: Paul Curran; Set and Costume Design: Gary McCann; Lighting Design: Paul Hackenmueller; Projection Design: Driscoll Otto; Chorus Master: Susanne Sheston
product_title=The Golden Cockerel at the Santa Fe Opera
product_by=A review by James Sohre
product_id=Above: Brenda Rae as Lucia [All photos copyright Ken Howard, courtesy of Santa Fe Opera