North East & YorkshireOperaReview

The Golden Cockerel – York Theatre Royal

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

Composer: Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

Conductor: Gerry Cornelius

Director: James Conway

In his programme notes James Conway writes that this is “likely to be the first performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel at most theatres on tour.” That may well be so for York, but Opera North staged it in Leeds some two or three decades ago. The change in attitude is revealing: that was pure fantasy, this begins with a dedication to the people of Ukraine and all through references to the barbaric troops lined up against King Dodon and the claims that his nation has won the war strike uncomfortable blows. Originally written as a response to the 1905 riots and Rimsky’s support for student protest, it was an inflammatory piece in its time, only produced posthumously in 1909.

But it’s the greatest merit of Conway’s superb production for English Touring Opera that the fantasy and crazy comedy flourish alongside these uneasy resonances. The opera is introduced by an Astrologer who goes on to explain that this is an old tale, but one that still has some relevance. King Dodon knows that his country is in danger of attack, but doesn’t know where or when. His sons, the two princes, have inept ideas for pursuing a war, to the fury of General Polkan, but all seems well when the Astrologer returns, with the gift of a Golden Cockerel which has the mysterious power of identifying danger. The King foolishly agrees to give the Astrologer whatever reward he shall ask for. Dodon sleeps, attended by his nanny, then the cockerel crows!

And that’s just Act 1. In Acts 2 and 3, the two princes kill each other by mistake, the Queen of Shemakha, Dodon’s conqueror, stirs him to marriage by an erotic song, and the final stages are full of bizarre events. Suffice it to say that the Astrologer and the Queen had it all sorted!

In this production a stylised front-cloth represents, one presumes, Bloody Sunday (1905). Costumes tell us plenty: the princes done up in sailor suits, the favoured garb for the Tsar’s children, the Astrologer clearly modelled on Rasputin, the nanny, Amelfa, delivering ambiguous messages to the people kitted out like a Red Army commissar.

One of the problems facing a company of ETO’s size in staging Rimsky-Korsakov is the orchestration. His brilliant orchestration enhanced the works of his fellow-composers – and that was usually with a huge orchestra – which ETO do not have. Iain Farrington, who did the reduction for this production, offers his insights in the programme and helps us realise how one trumpet can replace three, two horns replace four, and the rest. Certainly the orchestral sound shows comparatively little loss.

Musically a recurrent eight-note phrase burns itself in your consciousness, the Russian-ness of the choruses and orchestral dances strikes home, the Queen’s long song has the whiff of the Steppes behind it and the Astrologer’s high tenor seems to come from a distant planet.

A splendid cast, including chorus, all support each other admirably. Thomas Elwin and Jerome Knox, suitably doltish as the two princes, taking their nursery squabbles to the next level (now who is that like?); Edward Hawkins’ Polkan, all menace in movement, as useless as the rest of them; Amy J Payne’s Amelfa, bossily in charge, whether of Dodon and his teddy bears or of the people’s army; Alys Meredid Roberts, chirruping out her warnings as the Cockerel – all are excellent.

Best of all are Robert Lewis as the Astrologer, his movement (so, so slow) as he brings back the curtain on his next revelation, his tenor as other-worldly as it is knowing; Paula Sides as the Queen, making her demands via a song which carries a harshness which fits her perfectly; and company veteran Grant Doyle who delights as King Dodon, lazy incompetence sheathed in a veneer of bluster and a pretty wild dancer at the humiliating insistence of the Queen.

With the orchestra playing excellently for recently appointed Music Director of ETO, Gerry Cornelius, and witty set and costumes from Neil Irish (those reflections into a pastoral background are really neat), this is a show that it seems hard not to be able to recommend to readers in the area – there’s only May 10th at Gala Theatre, Durham, within reach out of eight further performances.

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The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Jacob Bush. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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