Cher Public

Cock of the walk

You are unlikely ever to hear Rimsky-Korsakov’s last opera sung in French, yet the piece, Zolotoy pyetushok (translated as The Golden Cockerel in English, folks around here being wary for some reason of calling it The Golden Rooster) is best known in these parts as Le Coq d’Or, which recalls its Met debut (1918, in French, on a double bill with Cavalleria Rusticana, in Sicilian) and nine subsequent Met seasons in that language. 

Even the famous New York City Opera English-language production for Beverly Sills and Norman Treigle (their only televised joint appearance, alas) was generally known by the French title. French is ever the tongue for suggestive euphemism, hein?

In New York, the opera was first performed in Russian in 1932 and last heard here in that language twenty-five years ago, when the or St. Petersburg National (or Maly) Theater presented it at the New York State Theater. It has now been resuscitated (five performances through Sunday) at the Sheen Center on Bleecker Street (a block from the old Amato Opera and CBGB’s) by a company called New Opera NYC.

The roles are multiply cast and there is a full if smallish orchestra under J. David Jackson that does a decent job by Rimsky-Korsakov’s notoriously brilliant writing. (R-K was Stravinsky’s teacher; there’s a lot of Coq in Le Rossignol.) Try not to sit too far to the right, as the percussionist often sings along, helping the harpist to follow her cues. On the other hand, he’s not bad; any Russian opera needs a hearty chorus.

The singers manage their awkward roles, the musicians can play and the production values might be described as eighties disco—that’s nineteen-eighties, mind you. The Queen of Shemakha resembles the Queen of Outer Space, with her astonishing abs (Gladys Swarthout, eat your heart out) and black light to show off her cerise day-glo lipstick and eyeliner. King Dodon wears a gangsta keep-the-‘fro-under-wraps silver lame cap for a crown and his courtiers are clothed in faux fur (bear, leopard, ocelot, questing beste) in shattering shades. There are sparkling lights in many unexpected places.

The plot is one of Pushkin’s ageless satirical fairy tales, so anachronism is to be reveled in. It’s definitely a look, as full of madcap color as Rimsky-Korsakov’s famous orchestration. Olga Maslova and Oksana Ivashkevych went nuts with the costumes, presumably in cahoots with Greg Mitchell’s lighting design. “Giaconda” is credited with the glittering coxcomb of the title character, which is every color but gold. Zachary Crane did the sets; one might speculate on the substances he imbibes for inspiration.

The staging by company founder Igor Konyukhov delights in this era-mangling: dance steps dabble across the centuries, warriors high-five each other, Amelfa the Cook (who appears to be the hostess of a cooking show), stuffs slippers in her brassiere and then pulls them out to use as hand puppets. From high on a stepladder, the Cockerel eyes us through binoculars. The Queen presents rare fragrances to the King and he sprays them under his arms. There is no attempt to present this serious, politically fraught fable as a serious, politically fraught fable, thank God. (Kids of all ages will adore it.)

The opera contains two great big roles and two significant but awkward brief ones. King Dodon is a Russian bass, a sendup of Boris and Igor and their ilk but also a comment on the tradition of the Tsar Pappataci. In 1908, when the dying composer submitted it, Russia had just lost a major war, barely survived a violent revolution and a major diplomatic loss of face over Bosnia; the opera did not find favor and was postponed for a year.

Mikhail Svertlov, who will sing all the performances, is happy to ham it up, dancing at the Queen’s command and snoring during other people’s music, but the gravity of his lowest notes is exactly what is desired and bespeaks much church training. He is ingratiatingly lyrical in the threnody for his sons.

The Queen of Shemakhan has been double cast. One associates this role with the sort of chirpy soprano Lily Pons, Sills and Faye Robinson brought to it, but Julia Lima has a fuller, deeper sound considerably more appropriate to her seductive message, though high filigree is not scorned. Her figure might be described as the inverse of cliché diva—she flaunts those abs!—and her snarling combination of the lascivious and the scornful is just what we expect in a Russian dominatrix.

The Cockerel was sung by Ksenia Antonova, who lacked the Offenbach-Doll soulless stamina of delivery that the part calls for. (She’s not human, you know.) Fabulous costume. The Astrologer is meant to be a eunuch, which implies a visitor from the infidel lands to the south and east of Russia with their ancient mystic lore; it is written for a very high tenor in consequence.

Today, perhaps, a countertenor would produce the proper sexual oddity, but John Villemaire sang with an ill-conditioned and ordinary high voice, leaps contorting his line. Too, his costume included with a beard so this Astrologer was no castrato. I stress: The role is nearly impossible and very short; the singer has no time to warm up, and his awkwardness is not a great distraction. (You could easily stage this opera with the three magical characters emerging from space ships. Really. It would make sense.)

Among King Dodon’s subjects, I was charmed by the deep Russian mezzo of Ksenia Berestovskaya’s Amelfa the Cook and happy with the overacting and occasional basso phrases of Gennady Visotsky’s amorous General Polkan, and Antonio Watts and Dmitry Gishpling-Chernov were effective as Dodon’s half-witted sons. The ensemble has less to do in this opera (a parody grand opera) than in most Russian lyric drama, but they did it lustily. It was a pleasant evening with much piquant Russian flavor.

I hope this company or some other takes note of the many Russians (at least two Orthodox priests! Several families with children!) who came out for it, and gives New York a staging of some of this sadly neglected composer’s meatier masterpieces. New York has not had a staged Tsar’s Bride or Sadko or Snow-Maiden since 1922, I believe, and only visiting companies have tackled Invisible City of Kitezh. I’m not sure Tsar-Saltan or Servilia has ever been performed in New York. These are operas everyone in Russia knows well, and our huge émigré community would perform them and applaud them lustily.

And if you are hankering, after this, for another earful of the score of The Golden Cockerel, American Ballet Theater presents four performances of the score (all dancing—no singing, but who needs it?) at the beginning of next month, staged by Alexei Ratmansky.

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