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Vasily Petrenko [Photo by Mark McNulty]
19 Dec 2017

The Golden Cockerel Bedazzles in Amsterdam

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s fairy tale The Golden Cockerel was this holiday season’s ZaterdagMatinee operatic treat at the Concertgebouw. There was real magic to this concert performance, chiefly thanks to Vasily Petrenko’s dazzling conducting and the enchanting soprano Venera Gimadieva.

The Golden Cockerel Bedazzles in Amsterdam

A review by Jenny Camilleri

Above: Vasily Petrenko [Photo by Mark McNulty]

 

Rimsky-Korsakov’s last opera, which premiered in 1909, after his death, is a thinly veiled parody of tyrannical stupidity and callousness. Its composition, to a libretto by Vladimir Belski based on Pushkin, was prompted by the Russian Revolution of 1905. The bird of the title is a magic animal given by an Astrologer to Tsar Dodon to warn him of impending enemy attacks. Aleksandra Kubas-Kruk crowed beautifully as the Golden Cockerel, mostly from the balcony, her soprano slightly heavier than is usual in the role. Fearing hostility from Shemakha, Dodon sends his army eastward, led by his two doltish sons, who slay each other by mistake. The war ends when the Queen of Shemakha seduces Dodon and they get married. Then the Astrologer claims her as his price for the cockerel, and both he and the Tsar meet a sticky end. As if to soften the satirical edge, the Astrologer is resurrected to reassure the audience that they’ve just witnessed an illusion, and that only he and the Queen are real. This simple tale unfolds on a colorful orchestral tapestry, where the kingdom of blundering Dodon is contrasted with the tantalizing exoticism of Shemakha. Vasily Petrenko rendered the score like a master painter, as vivid in the delicate tracery of arpeggiated accompaniment as in the brass-heavy, showy parades. The Netherlands Radio Philharmonic responded to his sure-footed leadership by performing at their virtuosic best. There were superlative solos, including the recurring Astrologer’s bell motif and the satin ribbon of the Queen’s theme on the clarinet and fellow woodwinds. The prominent brass acquitted themselves with honors, but so did every other section.

Selfish Dodon, incompetent and indifferent towards his people, is an unsparing caricature of Tsar Nicolas II. But Rimsky-Korsakov also parodies the stylistic devices of the Mighty Handful, the five composers, including him, who collaborated to create a distinctly Russian musical language. Dodon’s self-absorbed monologue, the pompous military marches and the risible lamentations echo their serious counterparts in operas such as Boris Godunov. Veteran bass Maxim Mikhailov, singing, like the rest of the cast, from memory, was dramatically very persuasive. Vocally, however, he lacked freshness and volume and the orchestra frequently submerged him. Dodon’s howling for his dead sons, underscored by the chorus, was inaudible. Volume was also a problem for bass Oleg Tsibulko, whose General Polkan remained tethered to the stage. Housekeeper Amelfa does little more than plump pillows and prepare nightcaps, but Yulia Mennibaeva made her a contoured, vocally alluring character, a far cry from a hooty aging servant. Mennibaeva is billed as a mezzo-soprano, which would explain why her lowest notes in this contralto role were not seamlessly stitched to the rest of her voice. Tenor Viktor Antipenko, unswerving and trumpet-like, sang Tsarevich Gvidon. Andrei Bondarenko, starting out with a fidgety top, but then settling to produce a beautifully poised baritone, was Tsarevich Afron. With voices like these, it’s a shame the princes don’t survive beyond the first act, even though their stupidity is beyond belief.

The long encounter in Act 2 between Dodon and the heartless Queen of Shemakha is a bewitching example of Russian orientalism. Rimsky-Korsakov has fun with the orgiastic abandon of “foreign” rhythms in the vein of Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances. When the Queen forces Dodon to dance, he shambles clumsily while the music eggs him on with a punishing accellerando. There is little irony, however, in the Queen’s enticing songs, with their chromatic cascades and sparkling orchestral hues. Venera Gimadieva, who has sung the role on the opera stage, has everything it requires. Her soprano is pure silver, with a downy middle range, employed to devastating effect during her description of her naked body. Poor Dodon is defenceless against such weaponry. With her clear, full top notes and fluid coloratura, Gimadieva was spectacular in the opera’s hit aria, the “Hymn to the Sun”. It is striking that, after so many send-ups, the people grieve for their Tsar with a magnificent choral lament. Although their praise for him is ludicrous, the composer sympathizes with the nation and refrains from ridicule. With this touching final chorus the Netherlands Radio Choir topped a glowing, round-toned performance marked by subtle role differentiation. The women’s slave chorus was an aesthetic highlight. The Astrologer is a role for a tenor who can soar comfortably above the staff. Barry Banks did so outstandingly, up to the fearful high E natural in Act 3. He sang with plenty of panache, bracketing this frequently magical performance with a fittingly strong prologue and epilogue.

Jenny Camilleri


Cast and production information:

Tsar Dodon: Maxim Mikhailov, bass; Tsarevich Gvidon: Viktor Antipenko, tenor; Tsarevich Afron: Andrei Bondarenko, baritone; General Polkan: Oleg Tsibulko, bass; Amelfa, a housekeeper: Yulia Mennibaeva, mezzo-soprano; Astrologer: Barry Banks, tenor; Tsaritsa of Shemakha: Venera Gimadieva, soprano; Golden Cockerel: Aleksandra Kubas-Kruk, soprano; First Boyar, Alan Belk, tenor; Second Boyar, Lars Terray, bass. Netherlands Radio Choir, Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra. Conductor: Vasily Petrenko. Heard at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam on Saturday, 16 December 2017.

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