Dallas — Public service announcement: “Don’t take the brown acid before you go to the show. Results will be unpredictable.”
This quip was one of the many announcements made over the public address system during Woodstock, as a friend of mine who was present related to me a few years ago. I had completely forgotten about it until I was on my way home from seeing The Dallas Opera’s production of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Golden Cockerel, a co-production with the Santa Fe Opera, where it was seen in 2017.
The story can take this kind of treatment in that it is a parable, as are all fairy tales, which aims to teach a specific lesson. As translated in the supertitles, the character of the Astrologer tells us right at the beginning, “Though fictional, the story is a moral. A lesson for all good, young folk.”
Let me state at the outset that this is a terrific, although molto bizzaro, production of this wonderfully strange opera. It is as visually flamboyant as Rimsky-Korsakov’s colorful and imaginative opera deserves. In director Paul Curran’s opium-dream of a staging, there are times when it is as slapstick-silly as the Marx Brothers and times when it is as grim as the darkest of mid-20th century Theatre of the Absurd.
Gary McCann’s set looks like the skeleton of a whale with a huge swoop of ascending fabric that acts as a screen for all of the Peter Max-ish projections by Dallas-based designer Driscoll Otto. They swirl like a wigged-out screen saver, kaleidoscope or the endless spiral used in hypnosis. McCann’s costumes are appropriately one step beyond exaggeration. The Vegas showgirl costumes that dress the attendants of the Queen use ostrich feathers like a soldier’s sword or a field changing room.
Curran’s direction ranges from spectacular to surreal. The court scene with all of the courtiers pointing randomly at each other is a perfect send-up of what passes for political speech. Alexander Rom’s excellently prepared chorus moves in large groups but also within that group as if their GPS is suddenly suffering from a solar flare.
The orchestra is as good as any other symphony — operatic or otherwise. On opening night, individual solos by section leaders were particularly impressive. The frequently employed harp deserves a special accolade.
All of the principal roles are portrayed by singing actors that don’t comment on their characters, nor cross the line into mugging or exaggeration. Vocally, it is hard to imagine a better cast.
The golden cockerel of the title is an early warning system bestowed on the Tsar by the Astrologer. It crows to let him know of approaching hostiles. In return, the Astrologer extracts a promise that the Tsar keenly regrets giving later in the story. The fowl doesn’t actually appear on stage in this production. Instead, the bird is an animated projection imagined as a flutter of feathers, and is sung offstage, with varying degrees of alarm, by the light lyric soprano Jeni Houser. In the final bows, her glittering golden lamé and sequined evening gown lets everyone know that she sang the role. (It’s fun that this production runs in repertory with Mozart’s The Magic Flute, another opera with bird imagery.)
As the Astrologer, Barry Banks wields his tenore-altino, a rare vocal fach (category), like a weapon, popping out very high notes beyond the usual range of mere humans. In this stratospheric ability, he is matched by Olga Pudova, who also delivers some ear-popping notes that reside far above the staff.
But her vocal range is just the beginning of the dazzling abilities she brings to the role of the Queen of Shemakha. Her voice is capable of producing stentorian and steely high notes as well as a magically floating pianissimo. Her coloratura work is superb, which is not a surprise considering that she was originally hired to sing the high-flying Queen of the Night in TDO’s concurrent production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. But it was her performance of the well-known “Hymn to the Sun” that entranced The Golden Cockerel audience.
As an actor, she easily makes the character transitions the role requires, from an ethereal vision of royalty to a femme fatale. She also has the physical attributes that allow her to pull off the steamy strip tease that she uses to undo the permanently adolescent Tsar Dodon (perhaps a play on the Dodo bird).
As that hopelessly inept ruler, Nikolay Didenko is anything but inept at characterization. Right from the beginning, he establishes the Tsar as the most dangerous type of fool, one who thinks he is impossibly smart and naturally superior to everyone else. Vocally, he delivers a tour de force in this workout of a role that dominates all three acts of the opera. In many ways, this complex assignment is reminiscent of the equally demanding part of the Baron Ochs in Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier, another silly old man drooling over a young woman.
Didenko’s bumbling antics are hilarious. He makes the most of his hugely oversized golden throne that his he mews around on for most of the first act. He can barely climb into it, let alone look even vaguely regal. Any vestige of dignity he may have ever possessed is surrendered as he prances around in the red union suit that he wears under his kingly robe. His foolish frolics bring to mind the animated character of the Despicable Me films.
Kevin Burdette is one of the best comic actors on the operatic stage and has the vocal chops to pull off serious roles as well. He does a masterful job here as the slimy General Polkan, who tries without success to keep the idiotic and childish Tsar from coloring outside of the lines.
Corey Crider and Viktor Antipenko, as the Tsar’s pair of equally clueless and childish progeny, construct a formidable comic couple, just one stooge short of a Three Stooges tribute act.
As Amelfa, the Tsar’s nursemaid with benefits, Lindsay Ammann sports a deep and rich mezzo-soprano that borders on contralto country. She brings outstanding comic abilities that allow her to fill out the role with details such as her hand puppet work and saying volumes with only the clever use of her flexible facial facility.
Filling out the cast, Jay Gardner and Christopher Harrison are admirable in the roles of the two Boyars and Samuel PJ Lopez does a fine job as the Tenor Solo.
Rimsky-Korsakov’s music is a marvel. He wrote the seminal book on orchestration, which still graces many a bookshelf. This instrumentalistic vision was transmuted to his pupil, Igor Stravinsky, as evidenced by Rimsky-Korsakov’s approval of his student’s ballet The Firebird. Stravinsky himself reportedly described his music as “Rimsky-Korsakov with pepper.”
Even if you hadn’t made the connection beforehand, on opening night in the hands of Dallas Opera’s music director, Emmanuel Villaume, the comparison with the later Stravinsky work became obvious. His thoughtful reading, tempi plan and careful layering of the dynamics revealed all of the score’s amazing details. Starting in the brief prologue, Villaume pointed out the leitmotifs that the composer uses throughout the score to indicate different characters and situations. Thus, they were impressed into our minds right from the first notes.
One revelation Villaume brought out on opening night performance was the composer’s debt to Debussy‘s musical revolution with his integration of orientalism into the Western vocabulary. This is evidenced in The Golden Cockerel by the use of the whole tone scale, juxtaposition of swirling harmonies a third apart, a rejection of the constricting formalisms of the past and adding a fresh vitality to the rhythm. The audience soon realized that they are already familiar with this style from hearing the composer’s much earlier tone poem, Scheherazade. Villaume’s performance shows how the composer refined and solidified all of his influences in this, his last major work.
The Golden Cockerel (Золотой петушок) was completed in 1907 but the premiere was delayed by the horror of the censors over the blatant sexuality in the second act as well as the none-to-subtle satire of Tsar Nicholas II, his much-hated German wife, Empress Alexandra, and Rasputin, his bête noir. Part of the cause of this loathing was that she was thought to have disastrously meddled in the affairs of state as satirized in the story.
Based on Alexander Pushkin's 1834 poem “The Tale of the Golden Cockerel,” the libretto was written by Vladimir Belsky. For this production, Curran modernized the libretto by creating a new set of supertitles as part of his directorial duties.
The censors were finally ignored, and the premiere happened in 1909, in Moscow's Solodovnikov Theatre — albeit after the composer’s death. The producing company was the Zimin Opera and Emil Cooper, a protégé of Arthur Nikisch, conducted.
Early performances outside of Russia, which usually used non-Russian speaking singers, were sung in French as Le coq d'or or, as the New York City’s first production, sung in English. In translations, the overt sexual parts were sometimes minimized. This was to discretely imply, rather than openly state, the flagrant womanly wiles employed by the future Queen as she straightforwardly seduces the stupid Tsar. He, of course, is suffering from testosterone poisoning.
Since this production is in the original Russian, the pre-pillow-talk cooing is all there and projected above the stage in poetic enough English to keep the younger audience members naïve, although you could hear some giggling. There isn’t any profanity or anything that is more than pointing out the beauty of her breasts. There is similar language in the Bible, and not just in the Song of Solomon.
The most suggestive statement occurs once she has cast off layers of garments and is down to a suggestive Vegas showgirl outfit. She entices the slobbering Tsar with this physical metaphor: “Dark and tight, dark and tight is my patterned tent / Soft and warm, warm and soft is the rug inside it.” Not exactly Henry Miller.
For some unfathomable reason near the end of the opera, both the Queen and Tsar appear in modern clothing, with her in a white power suit. Why? Does Curran think that we wouldn’t get that such stories of political corruption aren’t centuries or even decades old? One only has to glance at any news feed.
Operas are expected to end in a tragic death but this one ends with everyone, absolutely everyone, either dead or missing — a nihilistic message in itself. But lo and behold, the Astrologer and Queen suddenly appear to put everything right with the gods but with a nonetheless negativistic message delivered by the Astrologer:
So, this is how the story ends.
But a bloody outcome, however painful, shouldn’t trouble you. Only the Queen and I were real, living beings.
The rest is nonsense.
A dream... a pale specter...
Well, not quite. This strange trip ended with uproarious applause and an enthusiastic standing ovation.