A paranoid Russian leader plunges into a disastrous war. Inept tactics result in appalling numbers of deaths. The confused ordinary people are kept in darkness. It’s all horribly familiar. English Touring Opera’s decision to take Rimsky-Korsakov’s satirical version The golden rooster across the country this spring seems in equal measure both inspired and grimacingly inappropriate. Witnessing the cartoonish deaths of young soldiers on stage is uncomfortably gross when real guns rage, but when the deluded leader declares “I won’t listen to advice, not even my own,” it really hits home. Ridicule is the weapon despots fear most. For this reason alone, this opera would have no chance of being staged in Moscow today.
Rimsky never saw him play. Revolution was in the air, fueled by the cruel repression of dissent after the 1905 uprising and Russia’s defeat in the Tsar’s misguided war against the Japanese. A play that made fun of an indolent ruler and his dimwitted family was always going to run into censorship, and it wasn’t staged until 1909, after Rimsky’s death.
James Conway’s production – dedicated on the first night to the people of Ukraine and the brave protesters in Russia – takes a suitably pantomime approach, with comic book characters dressed in Neil Irish’s primary-colored suits singing a crisp rhyming translation by Antal Dorati and James Gibson.
King Dodon, who would rather sleep than rule, fears that a neighboring state will overwhelm his country. An astrologer offers him a golden rooster which will warn if the enemy advances. Delighted, the king offers the astrologer any reward he wishes to name. He chooses an IOU, which he will later redeem with devastating consequences. The rooster crows, war ensues and many die, including the king’s two sons, who kill each other in confusion.
The first act takes a while to settle in, with clumsy silliness hampering the satire, especially from sons Prince Guidon and Prince Aphron (tenor Thomas Elvin and baritone Jerome Knox), although the bass Grant Doyleas a desperate but dangerous king, has a lot of fun with his knockabout role, lying on his bed-like throne, spoon-fed by his doting nanny Amelfa (mezzo Amy J Paynein a threatening form).
Things pick up speed in the second half, when we discover that Dodon’s enemies are led by the seductive Queen of Shemakha. Soprano Paula sides looks gorgeous in the peacock hairstyle and the emerald dress, as imperious as the queen of the night. And Rimsky gives it his most interesting music, winding oriental melodies that coil and twist like his most popular work, Scheherazade. There were some intonation issues on the first night, the delicacy of Iain Farrington’s admirable reduced score, conducted by Gerry Cornelius, perhaps too frail at times to sustain it, but his commanding presence and the warmth of his coloratura have never been in doubt.
There are also some extraordinary vocals from the tenor Robert Lewis, as an astrologer, who easily tackles his uncomfortably high-pitched vocal line. Brilliant Soprano Alys Mered Roberts, resplendent as the strutting rooster, has the last word, pecking to death the terrible Russian ruler. Now there is an idea.
More birds – and animals – were conjured up at the Barbican last week when the arts center celebrated its 40th anniversary with two performances of Haydn’s gloriously exuberant oratorio, Creation. The London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, resident at the Barbican since its opening, should have been conducted by Simon Rattle, but a minor operation prevented it. His place was taken by the reliable cold Harry Christopheralthough the choir – lined up behind him in the front rows of stalls, turning to face the audience – was under the control of choirmaster Simon Halsey.
This astonishing reversal of personnel placed the choir in the foreground, visually and sonically. Rarely have 100 singers come under such scrutiny. Discipline was high, diction superb, few heads buried in the papers. Their first pianissimo entry, sung from memory, sent shivers down your spine and their dazzling explosion of color on “and there was light” was truly exciting, but some problems lurk here. The tenors in particular lack real spinning top, resorting too often to falsetto, too often blunting the contours of Haydn’s thrilling fugal writing.
However, the soloists were nothing boring. Soprano Lucy Crowtenor Andrew Staples and baritone Roderick Williams – each great communicators – sang with cheerful playfulness, Crowe particularly lively as Eve, portraying all the women with a mischievous eye-roll when they promise “obedience” to Adam. Yes of course.
Newly minted teenage musicians at Bobby Moore Academy in east London get the chance to be coached by young players from the rejuvenated Bath Festival Orchestra. Now for the first time – report loud cheers – the school has its own orchestra of 24 musicians. Its members will soon be performing alongside their teachers at a series of lunchtime concerts in London. Meanwhile, the BFO, under the direction of Peter Manning, made a truly impressive appearance at Kings Place, accompanying the brilliantly emphatic young Dutch cellist Ella van Poucke in Schumann’s Cello Concerto in A minor, dazzling us with the warm Mediterranean sunshine of Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony, and giving the UK premiere of Alba Rosa Vietorit’s Five symphonic sketches from 1962. It was a revelation, the pleasing dissonances and crisp clashes very much of their time, and no less welcome for that – much like the best sculpture of the mid-twentieth century, abstract yet warmly human.
Star ratings (out of five)
The golden rooster ★★★
Bath Festival Orchestra ★★★★