The Golden Cockerel Bedazzles in Amsterdam

Rimsky-Korsakov’s last opera, which premiered in 1909, after his death, is
a thinly veiled parody of tyrannical stupidity and callousness. Its
composition, to a libretto by Vladimir Belski based on Pushkin, was
prompted by the Russian Revolution of 1905. The bird of the title is a
magic animal given by an Astrologer to Tsar Dodon to warn him of impending
enemy attacks. Aleksandra Kubas-Kruk crowed beautifully as the Golden
Cockerel, mostly from the balcony, her soprano slightly heavier than is
usual in the role. Fearing hostility from Shemakha, Dodon sends his army
eastward, led by his two doltish sons, who slay each other by mistake. The
war ends when the Queen of Shemakha seduces Dodon and they get married.
Then the Astrologer claims her as his price for the cockerel, and both he
and the Tsar meet a sticky end. As if to soften the satirical edge, the
Astrologer is resurrected to reassure the audience that they’ve just
witnessed an illusion, and that only he and the Queen are real. This simple
tale unfolds on a colorful orchestral tapestry, where the kingdom of
blundering Dodon is contrasted with the tantalizing exoticism of Shemakha.
Vasily Petrenko rendered the score like a master painter, as vivid in the
delicate tracery of arpeggiated accompaniment as in the brass-heavy, showy
parades. The Netherlands Radio Philharmonic responded to his sure-footed
leadership by performing at their virtuosic best. There were superlative
solos, including the recurring Astrologer’s bell motif and the satin ribbon
of the Queen’s theme on the clarinet and fellow woodwinds. The prominent
brass acquitted themselves with honors, but so did every other section.

Selfish Dodon, incompetent and indifferent towards his people, is an
unsparing caricature of Tsar Nicolas II. But Rimsky-Korsakov also parodies
the stylistic devices of the Mighty Handful, the five composers, including
him, who collaborated to create a distinctly Russian musical language.
Dodon’s self-absorbed monologue, the pompous military marches and the
risible lamentations echo their serious counterparts in operas such as Boris Godunov. Veteran bass Maxim Mikhailov, singing, like the
rest of the cast, from memory, was dramatically very persuasive. Vocally,
however, he lacked freshness and volume and the orchestra frequently
submerged him. Dodon’s howling for his dead sons, underscored by the
chorus, was inaudible. Volume was also a problem for bass Oleg Tsibulko,
whose General Polkan remained tethered to the stage. Housekeeper Amelfa
does little more than plump pillows and prepare nightcaps, but Yulia
Mennibaeva made her a contoured, vocally alluring character, a far cry from
a hooty aging servant. Mennibaeva is billed as a mezzo-soprano, which would
explain why her lowest notes in this contralto role were not seamlessly
stitched to the rest of her voice. Tenor Viktor Antipenko, unswerving and
trumpet-like, sang Tsarevich Gvidon. Andrei Bondarenko, starting out with a
fidgety top, but then settling to produce a beautifully poised baritone,
was Tsarevich Afron. With voices like these, it’s a shame the princes don’t
survive beyond the first act, even though their stupidity is beyond belief.

The long encounter in Act 2 between Dodon and the heartless Queen of
Shemakha is a bewitching example of Russian orientalism. Rimsky-Korsakov
has fun with the orgiastic abandon of “foreign” rhythms in the vein of
Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances. When the Queen forces Dodon to dance,
he shambles clumsily while the music eggs him on with a punishing
accellerando. There is little irony, however, in the Queen’s enticing
songs, with their chromatic cascades and sparkling orchestral hues. Venera
Gimadieva, who has sung the role on the opera stage, has everything it
requires. Her soprano is pure silver, with a downy middle range, employed
to devastating effect during her description of her naked body. Poor Dodon
is defenceless against such weaponry. With her clear, full top notes and
fluid coloratura, Gimadieva was spectacular in the opera’s hit aria, the
“Hymn to the Sun”. It is striking that, after so many send-ups, the people
grieve for their Tsar with a magnificent choral lament. Although their
praise for him is ludicrous, the composer sympathizes with the nation and
refrains from ridicule. With this touching final chorus the Netherlands
Radio Choir topped a glowing, round-toned performance marked by subtle role
differentiation. The women’s slave chorus was an aesthetic highlight. The
Astrologer is a role for a tenor who can soar comfortably above the staff.
Barry Banks did so outstandingly, up to the fearful high E natural in Act
3. He sang with plenty of panache, bracketing this frequently magical
performance with a fittingly strong prologue and epilogue.

Jenny Camilleri

Cast and production information:

Tsar Dodon: Maxim Mikhailov, bass; Tsarevich Gvidon: Viktor Antipenko,
tenor; Tsarevich Afron: Andrei Bondarenko, baritone; General Polkan: Oleg
Tsibulko, bass; Amelfa, a housekeeper: Yulia Mennibaeva, mezzo-soprano;
Astrologer: Barry Banks, tenor; Tsaritsa of Shemakha: Venera Gimadieva,
soprano; Golden Cockerel: Aleksandra Kubas-Kruk, soprano; First Boyar, Alan
Belk, tenor; Second Boyar, Lars Terray, bass. Netherlands Radio Choir,
Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra. Conductor: Vasily Petrenko. Heard
at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam on Saturday, 16 December 2017.

image_description=Vasily Petrenko [Photo by Mark McNulty]
product_title=The Golden Cockerel Bedazzles in Amsterdam
product_by=A review by Jenny Camilleri
product_id=Above: Vasily Petrenko [Photo by Mark McNulty]