Saturday, September 2, 2017

Santa Fe's "Golden Cockerl" still has a pointed message

Gimadieva and Mix | Photo by Ken Howard
Using a humorous approach and vibrant imagery, Santa Fe Opera’s production of “The Golden Cockerl” (July 19) showed that a fairly obscure opera can pack a punch, especially in regards to today’s political scene. Written by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov in 1909 to a libretto by Vladimir Belsky after a tale by Pushkin based on stories by Washington Irving, the “The Golden Cockerl” was not some insignificant fantasy. It was meant by the composer to be protest the Tsar and the direction of Russia following a disastrous war with Japan in 1905. Rimsky-Kosakov, in fact, as the director of the St. Petersburg Conservatory (Russia’s most prestigious musical academy) had protested the arrest of students during the 1905 Revolution and was consequently fired. As the Santa Fe Opera’s program notes (written by Inna Naroditskaya) pointed out, Rimsky-Korsakov wrote “The Golden Cockerl” because he was embittered with the imperial authority and its censors demanded revisions, but he refused any alteration. As a result, the premiere of his opera was banned and it was staged a year after his death (in 1908).

In the Santa Fe production of “The Golden Cockerl,” it was easy to interpret Tsar Dodon as Donald Trump – a self-declared autocratic, narcissistic ruler – who must climb-crawl like a child onto his oversized throne-chair. Baritone Tom Mix wonderfully conveyed the ineptness and bone-headedness of the Tsar. Tsar Dodon was matched by his sons: Prince Guidon (Richard Smagur) and Prince Afron (Jorge Espino) who managed to kill each other in an attempt to defeat the army of The Queen of Shemakha (Venera Gimadieva). And you could read Eric Trump and Donald Trump Jr. into the roles of Prince Guidon and Prince Afron if you wanted.

Although she started with slightly wayward intonation, Venera Gimadieva’s singing became very secure and enticing – as was her visual presence in the role of The Queen of Shemaka. She was accompanied by ten of the most comely attendants (apprentice singers of Santa Fe Opera) that I have ever seen. Mix’s voice needed a little more Russian heft in the basement department, but Meredith was absolutely golden as the housekeeper Amelfa, singing with a big, busty tone and acting with impeccable comic timing.

Kevin Burdette exhibited a terrific sense of military earnestness and a humorous bravado as General Polkan. Barry Banks created a stunningly effective Astrologer, handling all of the punishing tenor altino passages with élan. After Tsar Dodon dies, his character gets the queen who elegantly wears sunglasses and a modern white pants suite a la Melania Trump.

Kasia Borowiec’s high cries of warning in the role of The Golden Cockerl were spot on, but she had to sing from off stage. That’s because The Golden Cockerl was an image that was projected onto a slightly curved wall on the left side of the stage. The projected design, created by Driscoll Otto, worked pretty well but fell short during the scene when the Cockerl killed Tsar Dodon, because Dodon had to fall against the wall. That limitation marred the outstanding direction of Paul Curran a bit. Gary McCann’s slightly garish costumes – a blend of traditional and modern – and the scenic design worked well for the most part.

The Santa Fe Opera orchestra responded well to the expressive baton of Emmanuel Vilaume. The chorus was well prepared by Susanne Sheston and sounded terrific.

It should be noted that The Golden Cockerl” was co-produced by Santa Fe Opera and The Dallas Opera where Villaume is music director. It will be presented in Dallas in the near future. Perhaps it will still have some political zing. Time will tell.

No comments: