To celebrate its 10th anniversary, the company mounted (pun intended) “The Golden Cock” — a drag adaptation of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel.
The original opera, based on a poem by Alexander Pushkin, premiered posthumously in 1909 in Moscow. With a Russian libretto — there’s also a French version, Le Coq D’Or — the Cockerel was censored from the very beginning for satirizing the monarchy. It’s a cock and bull story. The paranoid Tsar Dodon consults an astrologer whose rooster warns him that the neighboring Tsaritsa plans to invade. The details don’t really matter — in the end, Dodon brings about his own downfall.
Heartbeat has made drag performances — in addition to their more “standard” programming — an annual tradition. It can be traced back to Heartbeat co-founder Ethan Heard, who started the Yale School of Drag.
At the “Gala” performance on Thursday — catered, appropriately, by “The Pickle Guys,” with plenty of vodka — special guest John Holiday made an appearance at halftime. He sang Beyoncé’s “Love on Top” as well as “Una voce poco fa” from Rossini’s Barber of Seville.
Heartbeat made no illusion of faithfulness to Rimsky-Korsakov’s original. “Nikolai can Rimsky my ass,” said the mistress of ceremonies Maxim Ibadov, wearing a flamé corset and meringue-shaped wig. According to the set list, which I saw post-performance, only four arias from the original Cockerel actually made it on the program.
The overture was a mashup of warhorses. It included, in the span of a few minutes, both Prokofiev’s and Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet. It felt a bit like name that tune, and it might have been stale, if not for Daniel Schlosberg’s ingenious arrangement. Not to mention his expert playing on piano, joined by music director Jacob Ashworth on violin, Angela Shankar on clarinet and saxophone, and Deanna Cirielli on harp.
Band and singers alike were costumed by David Quinn. Early on, tenor Elliott Paige and baritone John Taylor Ward came out wearing fluffy neon coats, leather harnesses, gimp masks. “Tuck yourself into your bed nice and neat,” as Ward gestures to his crotch. “Breathe in that smell,” he continues, procuring poppers.
The English text — by Nico Krell, with Ashworth and Peregrine Heard — was full of zingers such as, “when Pushkin comes to shovekin.” As the “delulu” Tsar, contralto Sara Couden rocked an enormous mustache and teddy bear. She was hilarious in “Dodon’s Lament” — not to be confused with “Dido’s Lament.”
However, Ward might have stolen the show as the fruity astrologer. “What’s that?” asks Dodon. “It’s a cock, sire.” As the Tsaritsa, soprano Ariana Wehr — looking “solubrious” in her gold satin gown — sang “Ombra Leggera” from Meyerbeer’s Dinorah. In Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Hymn to the Sun,” she made the high notes — way up in the stratosphere — look effortless. All the while, sipping on her Stanley cup.
Countertenor Daniel Moody — as a young drag queen, kicked out into the Siberian wilderness — sang Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise” — wordless yet heartbreaking. Ashworth played a mashup of Flight of the Bumblebee with Firebird as the pinata-like cock flew around, at one point being mistaken for a dildo. When Ibadov took a bite out of a roast chicken, I could hear cries of “oh my God” from the audience. And in a scene riffing on “don’t ask don’t tell,” Russian soldiers Moody, Paige, and Ward sang in three-part harmony.
This is where things perhaps devolved a bit. Couden, now in “girl drag” performed “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” except with the words “No Homos.” It all culminated at “The only gay club in St. Petersburg,” where — to Kylie Minogue’s “Padam Padam” — “queers and Kremlin” had a snowball fight.
Somewhere in the chaos, the cock sunk its beak into the king’s neck, which spurted red tinsel, as the orchestra played the finale from Leoncavallo’s Pagiliacci. “That’s such a strange ending,” says Ibadov. That ending, actually, was one of the few details true to Rimsky-Korsakov’s original.
Photos: Russ Rowland