Review By Lisa Lanzi
Imagine a 113 year old opera, based on a Pushkin fairy tale, libretto written by Vladimir Belsky, visioning an entitled, despotic tsar intent on trampling the sovereignty of a neighbouring country. Yes, Rimsky-Korsakov did pen his final work as a response to Tsar Nicholas’s 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese war; but how ironic that this Barrie Kosky version arrives in Adelaide, after numerous delays and with Russian and Ukrainian artists in tow, at the exact murderous time we find ourselves observing pouty Putin intent on war. There were calls for the event to by boycotted in line with many anti-Russian actions worldwide but the Festival Directors stated that this production presented an apt allegory and would go ahead: "It's been created by a company of artists from eight different nations, including Ukraine and Russia, and they are all horrified at how art is mirroring life outside the doors of the theatre.”
The setting by Rufus Didwiszus is a macabre, monochrome dreamscape far removed from the lavish gold and royal blues and reds of other productions where complex Russian folk art pattern might adorn set and costumes. This hilly vista is covered with drying tussocks of grass dissected by a mud-caked pathway, all set on a seriously raked stage where for most of the time only a few characters are seen. One ancient, greyed and wind-blasted tree is set to the side where the cockerel perches for some of the two hours.
Sadly, the chorus are kept offstage as much as possible, Kosky seeming to prefer the focus to be on the main characters and their isolation in the wilderness. When the outstanding State Opera Chorus does get to be on stage voicing the intoxicating harmonies they are often in deep darkness, courtesy of Franck Evin’s mostly elegant but sometimes perplexing lighting choices.
Costuming for the chorus by Victoria Behr is darkly imaginative with soldiers wearing stockings and suspenders under very large horse heads which loom over the entire body as they trot about and rustle nervously in response to the Tsar’s confused orders. "Fools, yes we are" sing the compliant foot (hoof) soldiers while they nod and sway to the rhythm with an oddly satisfying and audible swish-in-time afforded by the over-sized costumes and/or the grassy surrounds. In another act the singers are draped in long dark veils, still barely lit, then finally, some colour emerges with grotesque make-up, wild wigs and exaggerated, distorted clothes. I have to say my mind flitted immediately to the line from Monty Python’s The Holy Grail, “The peasants are revolting”! Four male dancers costumed in burlesque finery or sequined silver lamé unitards convey choreographer Otto Pichler’s vision for the longer musical interludes with amusing and ironic content.
Russian Andrei Popov was astonishing as the Astrologer, his tenor-altino voice filling the space. Additionally, Popov’s connection to the role emotionally and physically gave the character depth, even during his between-act crossings in front of the curtain, although these breaks did seem very long. A bespectacled Tsar Dodon in grubby, dishevelled long johns was voiced by acclaimed Ukrainian-British bass/baritone Pavlo Hunka. His voice is impressive but his acting did not quite match the level of other performers. Coloratura soprano Venera Gimadieva, another Russian superstar, gave her bejewelled Queen of Chemakha role sensuality and poise, reminiscent of Old Hollywood glamour. Samuel Dundas (Tsarevich Aphron) and Nicholas Jones (Tsarevich Gvidon) were perfectly matched as the sycophantic brothers dressed a little like twin Ken dolls in lawyer mode. The Amelfa (Nursey) role gave the extraordinary Alexandra Durseneva great scope to play as an actor but it was her rich tones and powerful full range that stirred the audience. Matthew Whittet appears in the physical role of the glowering onstage Cockerel in smeared, faded gold body paint while her voice is given soaring existence by the thrilling Samantha Clarke.
The always wonderful Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, with conductor Arvo Volmer, deliver the rich and colourful composition with its oriental and Slavic motifs and harmonic complexity. The score embodies the incredible orchestral genius of Rimsky-Korsakov although he did not live to see it performed. This is the first time The Golden Cockerel has been produced in Australia and the acclaim it received last year at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence is duly deserved for its typical Kosky creativity.