Blame it on Serge Diaghilev. Rimsky-Korsakov died in 1908 and never saw the première of his last opera, The Golden Cockerel. When the great showman finally presented it in Paris in 1914, it was as Le Coq d’Or: a spectacular opera-ballet hybrid, with colourful, folk-inspired designs by Natalia Goncharova that came to define the Ballets Russes in its imperial phase. That was the form in which it came to Britain, where the Evening Standard described it as a ‘farrago of love-making, black magic and ingenuous inconsequence’ before turning to the real news – the costumes. And that’s the basic impression – a fabulous but flimsy slice of Slavic exotica – that has lodged itself in western memory, reinforced more recently by the Mariinsky company and Valery Gergiev. (We don’t talk about him any more.)
James Conway’s new production for English Touring Opera pulls away the tinsel and gives us the opera Rimsky wrote: a playful, pitch-black satire drenched in an atmosphere of compelling unease. Who knew? It’s no secret that Rimsky was prompted to write the opera by the bungled Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5, or that he took the side of the reforming liberals. It’s just that nothing in The Golden Cockerel’s performance history leads you to expect something as pointed, as economical, and as outright funny as this Pushkin-based fairy tale of a paranoid autocrat who entrusts the safety of his kingdom to a magic chicken before launching a catastrophic invasion of a neighbouring state. No one in tsarist Russia needed to have it spelled out, and no one needs it now – though of course ETO planned this staging long before the current news cycle.
Anyway, it’s another win for ETO’s long-established virtues of lucid storytelling and resourceful casting. Tsar Dodon’s onion-domed throne transforms into a silken love-tent for the Queen of Shemakha, and the Cockerel, in a nod to Diaghilev, wears a shining, stylised yellow crest and costume – though it’s performed not by a dancer but by a soprano (Alys Mererid Roberts) whose movements are as graceful as her singing is brilliant. The costumes (by Neil Irish) are a mixture of toytown tsarist and streamlined Ballets Russes, and the Astrologer – a very unreliable narrator – repeatedly intervenes, tugging a curtain painted with one of those apocalyptic early-Soviet modernist visions. As a warning of horrors ahead, it chimes perfectly with the slip-sliding chromaticism of Rimsky’s score. He never wrote anything more ominous or insinuating, and under Gerry Cornelius, the 27-piece ETO orchestra makes it swirl, and on occasion sting, without placing undue pressure upon the singers.
They’re good, by the way. In Buxton, Aidan Edwards stood in at short notice as Dodon, though you wouldn’t have guessed it – unmistakably a buffoon, but singing with such clarity that you actually felt a stab of sympathy when he finds his imbecile sons dead on the battlefield. (The rhyming English translation dates from a 1940s US revival; it’s quirky but serviceable.) Robert Lewis, as the Astrologer, delivers his warnings in a fierce, nasal tenor – entirely in keeping with the absurdist atmosphere – and Paula Sides’s Queen melted from icy hauteur to languishing sensuality, throwing out bejewelled sprays of coloratura as she went. You sort-of knew she would have the last laugh, and there’s something unnerving about the way a fairy tale opera from 1908 anticipates precisely what we’re thinking and feeling in the spring of 2022. It’s touring nationally; something to bear in mind next time you encounter any clickbait-y rubbish about Russian music being cancelled.
The Czech Philharmonic played two (mostly) home-grown programmes at the Barbican under its music director Semyon Bychkov. This was the first major overseas orchestra at the Barbican since Covid and I went to the first night, on the principle that everyone should hear the Czech Philharmonic play Smetana’s Má vlast at least once in their life. It was everything you’d hope: strings with the burnished sheen of antique silver, and an authentic, down-the-spine shiver as Smetana brought his ‘Vysehrad’ chorale back at the end of the final movement. Earlier, Yuja Wang had played Rachmaninov’s First Piano Concerto, and seemed to dial back her usual flamboyance out of respect for Bychkov and his orchestra. She glowed rather than dazzled; the result was oddly touching.
At the Southbank, meanwhile, Vasily Petrenko conducted the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in Walton’s First Symphony, and if the strings sounded polished but underweight, the RPO horns almost matched the Czechs for billowy richness. Petrenko chose to blur Walton’s edges, and as a strategy it didn’t really work: this, of all British symphonies, relies upon the precise and highly localised application of brute force. Still, Petrenko’s command was impressive, and it’s possible that in a couple of seasons’ time the RPO might find that it has the most interesting chief conductor of any ‘big four’ London orchestra.