Rimsky-Korsakov The Golden Cockerel (DVD)
Pavlo Hunka, Alexey Dolgov, Konstantin Shushakov, Alexander Vassiliev, Agnes Zwierko, Alexander Kravets, Venera Gimadieva, Sheva Tehoval, Sarah Demarthe; La Monnaie Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Alain Altinoglu; dir. Laurent Pelly (Brussels, 2016)
Bel Air Classiques DVD: BAC 147; Blu-ray: BAC447 118 mins
Producer Laurent Pelly’s comedic gift illuminates his dizzy Offenbach stagings and his Fille du Régiment at Covent Garden, so it’s interesting that he takes a much darker view of Rimsky’s subversive farce. Literally darker, because it’s set on a coal heap, progressively covering everyone in grime, topped with the vast bed of the permanently pyjama-clad Tsar Dodon. The seductive Queen of Shemakha appears among collapsed girders, not the usual scantily-clad houri but a slinky, vampiric dominatrix in scaly black, with grotesque followers. Occasional historical references, culminating in a lurid sunset, remind us that Russian farces traditionally end unhappily (hence Chekhov’s).
But if all this sounds off-putting, it shouldn’t. It’s musically superb, much finer than the recent Mariinsky release; conductor Alain Altinoglu conjures up subtler, more translucent colours than Gergiev and more witty, mercurial energy, with a distinctly better cast. And it’s still extremely funny, thanks not least to British-Ukrainian bass Pavlo Hunka. A resonantly overbearing old Dodon he’s also curiously sympathetic as he engineers his own downfall. Pelly gets unusual mileage out of Dodon’s idiot twin sons and dotty nurse Amelfa. Sheva Tehoval sings a bright Cockerel, danced by Sarah Demarthe. Alexander Kravets’s characterfully sinister Astrologer strays too readily into falsetto; Alexander Vassiliev’s crusty, put-upon General Polkan is rather muted. Appropriately stunning, though, is the Queen, Venera Gimadieva, a big hit in Glyndebourne and Covent Garden’s Traviatas, who has exactly the right luscious but steely tones, and radiates outrageous sensuality and serpentine menace. This vision of tyranny in tragi-comic self-destruct mode makes more sense than any other Cockerel I’ve seen, even David Pountney’s legendary Scottish staging. The Mariinsky has its moments, but this is now the one to have.
Michael Scott Rohan