Le Coq d’Or

by Jennifer Bryce

Composer Rimsky-Korsakov

The opera, The Golden Cockerel, was performed at the Adelaide Festival. The music is by Russian composer Rimsky-Korsakov (1844 – 1908). It was directed by Barrie Kosky. How could anyone have known, when programming this opera, of the present situation in Ukraine? Rimsky-Korsakov wrote the opera during the 1905 Russo-Japanese war – it is a political satire about Tsar Nicholas II, who was deposed in 1917 and assassinated in 1918. Tsarist censors forbad performance until 1909, so Rimsky-Korsakov died without witnessing a performance of this work. And further irony – the part of the Tsar on this occasion in Adelaide was sung by Ukrainian Pavlo Hunka and other lead characters, such as the tsarina he falls in love with, are Russian.

The ineffective tsar goes off to war

The music reminded me of Scheherazade, with melodies wafting like those from one thousand and one nights – many beautiful woodwind themes. The libretto was inspired by a Pushkin tale. The main focus is a stupid old tsar, who falls in love with the tsarina of one of the countries he wants to conquer – she makes fun of his bumbling love-making.

The one set was stunning. It reminded me of the Sorrento surf beach – no sea but what seemed like sand dunes with tussock grass, a driftwood-like tree at the top of which perched the silvery golden cockerel who warns the tsar when his country is in danger. I’ve never before seen a performance of this opera, but I expect that the chorus of soldiers is usually outfitted in colourful military uniforms. In this case, the soldiers wore horseheads – all dark grey. There was little colour, and this was effective reminding us of a sombre side as the tsar made his foolish and ultimately abortive attempts to rule. I was surprised that over the two hours (without interval) the set didn’t change. But I guess there was no need for anything more than an oppressive backdrop.