Kosky’s thought-provoking The Golden Cockerel at Berlin’s Komische Opera gets a stylish performance

GermanyGermany Rimsky-Korsakov, The Golden Cockerel: Soloists, Dancers, Chorus and Orchestra of the Komische Oper / James Gaffigan (conductor). Komische Oper, Berlin, 3.2.2024. (MB)

Komische Oper’s The Golden Cockerel © Monika Rittershaus

Director – Barrie Kosky
Assistant director – Denni Sayers
Set design – Rufus Didwiszus
Costumes – Victoria Behr
Lighting – Franck Evin
Choreography – Otto Pichler
Dramaturgy – Olaf A. Schmitt, Meike Lieser
Chorus director – David Cavelius

King Dodon – Alexander Roslavets
Prince Guidon – Pavel Valuzhin
Prince Aphron – Hubert Zapiór
General Polkan – Alexander Vassiliev
Amelfa – Margarita Nekrasova
Golden Cockerel – Julia Muzychenko, Daniel Daniela Ojeda Yrureta
Queen of Shemakha – Kseniia Proshina
Astrologer – James Kryshak
First Boyar – Taiki Miyashita
Second Boyar – Jan-Frank Süsse
Dancers – Michael Fernandez, Lorenzo Soragni, Silvano Marraffa, Kai Chun Chung

Two productions, very different, of Rimsky-Korsakov’s last opera, The Golden Cockerel, within two years: James Conway for English Touring Opera, which I saw in Hackney, and now Barrie Kosky’s new production for Berlin’s Komische Oper in its temporary home in Charlottenburg. Both are experienced, though neither was planned, in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, ETO’s first night less than a fortnight after, the Komische Oper’s second night falling as we approach the two-year anniversary (although intended for 2020 and thwarted by the coronavirus pandemic). Rimsky’s satire on tsarist power and Russian imperialism in the wake of the Russo-Japanese war could hardly be more topical, then, and it would be difficult, indeed perverse, to banish thoughts of today’s King Dodon from our minds completely.

In neither production, though, were such ideas first and foremost — and that is arguably a good thing. Spelling out so clearly rarely is, though there will always be exceptions. ‘Rimsky in Hackney’ gave a good introduction to the piece and played fruitfully with ideas of orientalism. Though necessarily given in a reduced orchestration, that proved surprisingly – for a composer and score for whom orchestral colour are so crucial – little of a problem. A dated English translation, replete with ‘amusing’ rhyming couplets, offered more of a barrier. This Cockerel, given in Russian, in full, and in excellent style by James Gaffigan, the Orchestra of the Komische Oper, and a fine cast of singers, took a different turn in Kosky’s production, which initially had me feel a little dissatisfied. However, the more I considered it, the more it grew on me.

What is missing? Russia, orientalism, and the ‘fantastic’ colour associated with them, though certainly not fantasy itself; and most of the politics too. There is nothing wrong with including the former trio; there is every reason to do so. We can live without them, though, for they will never disappear from what we hear — and all of them benefit from or rather, in today’s climate, demand something in the way of deconstruction. The politics are perhaps more of a problem — or were for me. Surely a satire on war and power stands in a curious position if little attention is granted either? Yes and no, though to start with my answer, doubtless as someone strongly inclined toward political theatre, would definitely have been ‘yes’. Instead, taking his leave from the Astrologer’s claim – a deft way of dealing with the censor, who nonetheless refused to approve the opera – that this was only a fairy tale whose characters he had brought to life, Kosky treats this all as Dodon’s dream.

A cop out, you might say: one of the most tired devices in children’s, let alone adults’, writing. And yes, most of us will have felt cheated at, say, the end of John Masefield’s The Box of Delights, though things become more complex when we read it in the light of his The Midnight Folk, which is not a dream. Here the spur is to consider the work more psychoanalytically. If this is a fairy tale, the dream permits a more erotic but also a more absurdist turn. Rufus Didwiszus’s designs disdain a palatial world of gilt for a landscape that might be a setting for Waiting for Godot; Dodon’s clowning and dishevelment owe something to that world too. Victoria Behr’s costumes are crucial here too: Dodon remains the same, but all around him change, delineating stages of the dream-drama as much as character, arguably more so. It would hardly be a Kosky production without someone in fishnets; here the King’s men are horses on top and cabaret artists below. Some might complain we have seen it all before, and perhaps we have, but within this framework it makes sense.

Kosky also makes excellent sense of the second act – as did Gaffigan – which I see I found ‘over-extended’ in Hackney. It arguably sits less well with a political interpretation and, without something else, might seem oddly unwarranted. Such a thought never occurred to me on this occasion; indeed, my thoughts on occasion turned to Kundry’s revelations to Parsifal in the second act of that opera, an example certainly well known to Rimsky. The Queen of Shemakha becomes Dodon’s wish-fulfilment, and thus – in a twist of the final revelation when the Astrologer owns that only he and the Queen were ‘real’ – an impossible male fantasy, a siren who cannot exist. I wonder whether there might be room for both, and doubtless there can, but perhaps then I might be complaining of a lack of focus. This opens up possibilities rather than closing them, and for that, as well as Kosky’s clear attention to the fact that this is a musical drama, with an orchestral score and vocal parts that demand dramatic attention, we should certainly be grateful. Likewise for the sense of mystery that attends certain shifts, not least in presentation of the ‘people’, be they shadowy or downright oddball. A framework is provided, but there is no attempt to dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t’. Dreams may or may not ‘mean’ something; that remains in large part up to us. They will nevertheless certainly signify, if never quite representing, wishes and fears — which may be amenable to stronger political interpretation for tsars then and now. Note the Queen’s skilled troupe of dancing boys, but also the stark image of the King’s son hanging from a tree, all for a ruler whose principal skill seems to be tilting at windmills.

Komische Oper’s The Golden Cockerel © Monika Rittershaus

Gaffigan’s command of colour, rhythm, structure, and harmony are superb, revealing this as a truly incisive score with multiple interpretative – dramatic, as well as ‘purely’ musical – challenges of its own. The orchestra was on terrific form throughout: important, I think, to underline, given the tendency to think of this company’s values being more on the ‘theatrical’ side. In truth, any opera company that does not bear witness to the multifaceted nature of the genre will not get very far: no one goes to see an opera without music, and if some reactionaries may claim to prefer to close their eyes, their manufactured outrage gives the lie to that. Motifs imprinted themselves in the memory, as did rhythms, timbres, and their combination. Sometimes – often – this drew us in, but it could distance us too: not exactly Verfremdung, but certainly an advantageous framing to the framing of our fairy tale.

Equally important to that and so much else was the excellent cast. On stage almost the whole time for a two-hour-plus performance without an interval, Alexander Roslavets gave a towering performance as King Dodon. It is not an easy thing to bring a plodding, in many ways unimpressive character to musical life, but that Roslavets certainly did, granting him sympathy as well as absurdity, through equal concentration on words, music, and gesture. Kseniia Proshina’s Queen of Shemakha offered old-style stardom, partly ‘straight’, partly in inverted commas, and pristine command of all the vocal challenges Rimsky threw at her. James Kryshak’s Astrologer trod a fine line between sympathetic and almost frighteningly unsympathetic and emerged all the stronger for it. Margarita Nekrasova’s deep, unerringly ‘Russian’ mezzo-soprano, as near a contralto as made no odds, was just the thing for the housekeeper-turned-regent Amelfa. Julia Muzychenko brought the Cockerel itself to vivid vocal life, in a fine partnership with Daniel Daniela Ojeda Yrureta’s onstage performance, which offered plentiful malice and ambiguity. As ever, there was a fine sense of company, these singers and their colleagues all contributing to the greater whole. What did it mean? What, indeed?

Mark Berry

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