Tuesday, March 8, 2022



The Golden Cockerel. Composed by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Libretto by Vladimir Bielski. 

Conductor Arvo Volmer. Director Barrie Kosky. Stage designer Rufus Didwiszus. Costume designer Victoria Behr. Lighting designer Franck Evin.  Chreographer Otto Pichler.  Adelaide Festival in collaboration with Festival d’Aix en Provence, Opera Nacional and Komische Oper Berlin and in association with the Adelaide Symphony Orcheatra. Festival Theatre. Adelaide Festival Centre. March 4 – 9 2022

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins


Barrie Kosky’s production of The Golden Cockerel is an absolute delight and a rare and unmissable opportunity to see Rimsky-Korsakov’s final opera.  It is a strange and perplexing work, a folkloric fable, surreal and absurd, a sardonic satire on the crumbling Russian monarchy and condemnation of an order that is no longer relevant. The curtain rises on Rufus Didwiszus’s woodland design and on a stage crowded with bushes and dominated by a tall and single tree, rising from the bushes below and at the top a large nest. The entire setting evokes the fabled forest landscape of fairy tales. Like all fairy tales, it is a presentiment of things to come, a prophetic symbol of humanity’s destiny.

The opera opens with the appearance of an astrologer (tenor-altino Andrei Popov), the harbinger of future tidings. He gives the bumbling, lazy Tsar Dodon (Pavlo Hunka a golden cockerel (Matthew Whitter) to guard over the clumsy ineffectual ruler and to warn him when the enemy will come. Comical irony permeates Rimsky-Korsakov’s version of Andrei Pushkin’s 1835 novel. Dodon sends his sons to fight the enemy and they kill each other. The beautiful Queen of Chemaka (Vanera Gimadieva) assumes victory by the seductive guile of an an oriental siren of the East, Gimadieva is bewitching, commanding Rimsky-Korsakov’s complex and contradictory orchestration and soaring melodies. Samantha Clarke complements Gimadieva’s entrancing  soprano with the Cockerel’s mezzo soprano in contrast to Dodon’s rich Bass and the bass and  light tenor voices of sons, Tsarevich Aphron (Samuel Dundas) and Tsarevich Gvidon (Nicholas Jones). 

 As a result of his union with Queen Chemakha, Dodon’s power grows. The Astrologer appears and asks for the hand of Chemakha as his reward and is brutally slain by the power-crazed ruler. Outraged by the death of his master the golden cockerel pecks Dodon to death. This is a fairy tale and fairy tales are not true. They are morality tales teaching the young the moral values of their culture. The headless astrologer appears in a brief epilogue to bring to an end this symbolic narrative by revealing that only he and the Queen were real characters in this story. The rest was “delirium, dreams, pale ghosts and pure nothingness”

Created at the time of the Russian-Japanese war of 1905 and as a prophetic precursor to the October revolution of 1917 and the execution of Tsar Nicholas, The Golden Cockerel assumes an historical and political significance A chorus, shocked and disoriented by Dodon’s death ask “What future is there without a tsar?’ 

 Kosky pays reverence to the traditional character of the staging and Victoria Behr’s costuming apart from the occasional anachronism of the son’s suits. The entire production recalls the era of Diaghelev and Nijinsky . It transports the audience to the magical world of mysterious and portentous fable. Orchestration, superbly interpreted by conductor Arvo Volmer and played exquisitely by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra under Volmer’s baton incorporates Rimsky-Korsakov’s melodic themes, eliciting surpise and fascination. Like Vladimir Ivanovich Bielski’s libretto, Rimsky-Korsakov’s  prophetic satire forecasts the Russian avant-garde, the era of expressionism and the disruption of order in the twentieth century. Kosky’s production presents the opera without embellishment and leaves it for the audience to form a judgement or analyze a meaning. What remains is a moral fable harking back to Lear and forward to Brecht and Beckett, framed by operatic convention but resonating with the cry for change of the drama. Kosky has once again created a vision for our time and reimagined the past in the context of the present, lending The Golden Cockerel specific relevance for our time and a warning for all time. 

Photos by Jean Louis Fernandez