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The Golden Cockerel

The Golden Cockerel (Золотой Петушок, Zolotoy Petushok) is an opera in three acts (with short prologue and even shorter epilogue) by Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov. The libretto was written by Vladimir Belsky and is based on Alexander Pushkin's 1834 poem The Tale of the Golden Cockerel (which is based on two chapters of Tales of the Alhambra by Washington Irving). The opera was completed in 1907, and received its premiere in Moscow in 1909, thus after the composer's death. Previously, the opera was commonly performed in French under the still recognized title Le Coq d'Or. Nowadays, the opera is almost exclusively sung in Russian.

Composition history

Rimsky-Korsakov had considered his previous opera, The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya (1907) to be his final artistic statement in the medium, and, indeed, this work has been called a "summation of the nationalistic operatic tradition of Glinka and The Five." However the political situation in Russia at the time inspired him to take up the pen to compose a "razor-sharp satire of the autocracy, of Russian imperialism, and of the Russo-Japanese war.

Four factors influenced Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov to write this opera-ballet:

  1. Pushkin – Rimsky-Korsakov’s other works inspired by Alexander Pushkin's poems, especially Tsar Saltan, had been very successful. The Golden Cockerel had the same magic.
  2. Bilibin – Ivan Bilibin had already produced artwork for the Golden Cockerel, and this conjured up the same traditional Russian folk flavours as those in Tsar Saltan.
  3. Tsar Nicholas II – Nicholas II had foolishly started the Russo-Japanese War by making a pre-emptive strike against the Japanese forces in Manchuria and Korea. This war was highly unpopular amongst the Russian people. It proved to be a military disaster, and Russia was eventually defeated. (Remember that in the Golden Cockerel, King Dodon foolishly decides to make a pre-emptive strike against the neighbouring State, and there is huge chaos and bloodshed on the battlefield. The king himself gives more attention to his personal pleasures, and comes to a sticky end.)
  4. Russian Revolutionary Activity in 1905 – The Russian people were not only upset by the Russo-Japanese War, but, more importantly, by their feudal living conditions. On January 9, 1905, several thousand people, led by a priest, demonstrated peacefully in the Palace Square in St Petersburg. They tried to hand in a petition asking for better working conditions, an eight hour day, a minimum wage, and the prohibition of child labour. However, more than 1,000 persons were shot by the Tsarist troops, and the date has become known as Bloody Sunday (1905). News of this spread rapidly - there was an uprising in Odessa, where the sailors in the battleship Potemkin took over the ship and fired on the headquarters of the tsarist troops. Again, there was a massacre of people on the Odessa steps. The Students in the St Petersburg Conservatoire also demonstrated against the Czar, and Rimsky Korsakov supported their protest. For this he was dismissed from his post as head of the Conservatoire. Alexander Glazunov and Anatoly Lyadov resigned and left with him. See also Russian Revolution of 1905.

Rimsky-Korsakov decided to create a work exposing the disastrous tsarist regime, and in 1906 he started work on his Golden Cockerel opera. It was finished in 1907. The opera was immediately banned by the Palace, and was not allowed to be staged - the resemblance between the Czar and the foolish King Dodon was too close. Rimsky-Korsakov’s health was probably affected by this, and he was dead by the time it was performed two years later.

Performance history

The premiere of the opera in Moscow took place on 7 October (O.S. 24 September), 1909 at the Solodovnikov Theatre presented by the Zimin Opera. The conductor was Emil Kuper and set designs were by Ivan Bilibin. Several weeks later, the opera was presented at the Bolshoy Theatre in Moscow on 6 November, 1909 conducted by Vyacheslav Suk and set designs by Konstantin Korovin.

The London and Paris premieres were both given in 1914, but the Paris production was as an Opera-Ballet, with Mikhail Fokin (Michel Fokine).

The United States premiere took place in the Metropolitan Opera on March 6, 1918, and all those performances there before WWII were sung in French, but in 1945 they were sung in English. After 1945 the opera was never (so far) revived by the Met, but received revival at the New York City Opera in 1967-1971 (all performances in English) when Beverly Sills sung the role of the Queen of Shemakha, Julius Rudel conducting.

Roles

Roles Voice type Performance cast
Zimin Opera
24 September 1909
(Conductor:Emil Cooper)
Performance cast
Bolshoy Theatre
6 November 1909
(Conductor:Vyacheslav Suk)
Tsar Dodon bass Speransky Osipov
Tsarevich Gvidon tenor Ernst
Tsarevich Afron baritone Dikov
General Polkan bass
Amelfa, a housekeeper contralto
Astrologer tenor altino Vladimir Pikok Anton Bonachich
Shemakhan Tsaritsa soprano Avreliya-Tsetsiliya Dobrovolskaya Antonina Nezhdanova
Golden Cockerel soprano Vera Klopotovskaya
chorus, silent roles

Note on names:

  • Pushkin spelled Dodon's name as Dadon. The association of the revised spelling Dodon in the libretto with the bird the Dodo is likely intentional.
  • Shemakha is a noun, denoting a place. Shemakhan is an adjectival usage.

Synopsis

Time: Unspecified

Place: In the thrice-tenth kingdom, a far off place (beyond thrice-nine lands) in Russian fairy tales.

Act 1

In the short prologue, after quotation in the orchestra of the most important leitmotifs, a mysterious Astrologer comes before the curtain announcing to the audience that although they are going to see and hear a fictional tale from long ago, but his story is containing valid and true moral.

The bumbling King Dodon talks himself into believing that his country is in danger from the neighbouring State governed by the beautiful Queen of Shemakha. He asks for the advice of the Astrologer, who gives him a magic Golden Cockerel, which promises to look after his interests. The Golden Cockerel confirms that Queen of Shemakha certainly has some territorial ambitions, so King Dodon foolishly decides to make a pre-emptive strike against the neighbouring State, and sends his army, led by his two sons, to start the battle.

Act 2

However, his sons are both so inept that they manage to kill each other on the battlefield. King Dodon then decides to lead the army himself, but further bloodshed is averted because the Golden Cockerel ensures that the old king becomes besotted when he actually sees the beautiful Queen. The Queen herself encourages this situation by performing a seductive dance - which tempts the King to try and partner her, but he is clumsy and makes a complete mess of it. The Queen realises that she can take over Dodon’s country without further fighting - she engineers a marriage proposal from Dodon, which she coyly accepts.

Act 3

The Final Scene starts with the great Bridal procession in all its splendour - and when this is reaching its conclusion, the Astrologer appears and says to the king “You promised me anything I could ask for if there could be a happy resolution of your troubles.......” “Yes, Yes,” said the king, “Just name it and you shall have it”. “Right,” said the Astrologer, “I want Queen of Shemakha!”. At this, the King flares up in fury, and strikes down the Astrologer with a blow from his mace. The Golden Cockerel, loyal to his Astrologer master, then swoops across and pecks through the King’s jugular. The sky darkens and when light returns, both queen and cockerel disappears.

In the epilogue, the Astrologer comes again before the curtain and announces the end of his story, reminding the public that what they just saw was "only an illusion," that only he and the queen were mortals and real.

Principal arias and numbers

Act 1
Introduction: "I am a sorceror" «Я колдун» (Orchestra, Astrologer)
Lullaby (Orchestra, Guards, Amelfa)

Act 2

Aria: "Hymn to the Sun" «Ответь мне, зоркое светило» (Shemakhan Tsaritsa)
Dance (Shemakhan Tsaritsa, Orchestra)
Chorus (Slaves)

Act 3

Scene: "Wedding Procession" «Свадебное шествие» (Amelfa, People)

Instrumentation

Analysis

Preface to The Golden Cockerel by librettist V. Belsky (1907)

The purely human character of Pushkin's story, The Golden Cockerel - a tragi-comedy showing the fatal results of human passion and weakness - allows us to place the plot in any surroundings and in any period. On these points the author does not commit himself, but indicates vaguely in the manner of fairy-tales: "In a certain far-off kingdom", "in a country set on the borders of the world".... Nevertheless, the name Dodon and certain details and expressions used in the story prove the poet's desire to give his work the air of a popular Russian tale (like Tsar Saltan), and similar to those fables expounding the deeds of Prince Bova, of Jerouslan Lazarevitch or Erhsa Stchetinnik, fantastical pictures of national habit and costumes. Therefore, in spite of Oriental traces, and the Italian names Duodo, Guidone, the tale is intended to depict, historically, the simple manners and daily life of the Russian people, painted in primitive colours with all the freedom and extravagance beloved of artists.

In producing the opera the greatest attention must be paid to every scenic detail, so as not to spoil the special character of the work. The following remark is equally important. In spite of its apparent simplicity, the purpose of The Golden Cockerel is undoubtedly symbolic.

This is not to be gathered so much from the famous couplet: "Tho' a fable, I admit, moral can be drawn to fit!" which emphasises the general message of the story, as from the way in which Pushkin has shrouded in mystery the relationship between his two fantastical characters: The Astrologer and the Queen.

Did they hatch a plot against Dodon? Did they meet by accident, both intent on the king's downfall? The author does not tell us, and yet this is a question to be solved in order to determine the interpretation of the work. The principal charm of the story lies in so much being left to the imagination, but, in order to render the plot somewhat clearer, a few words as to the action on the stage may not come amiss.

Many centuries ago, a wizard, still alive today sought, by his magic cunning to overcome the daughter of the Aerial Powers. Failing in his project, he tried to win her through the person of King Dodon. He is unsuccessful and to console himself, he presents to the audience, in his magic lantern the story of heartless royal ingratitude.

Marina Frolova-Walker points to The Golden Cockerel as the fore-runner of the anti-psychologistic and absurdist ideas which would culminate in such 20th century 'anti-operas' as Prokofiev's The Love for Three Oranges (1921) and Shostakovich's The Nose (1930). In this, his last opera, Rimsky-Korsakov had laid "the foundation for modernist opera in Russia and beyond."

Performance practice

Composer's Performance Remarks (1907)

  1. The composer does not sanction any "cuts."
  2. Operatic singers are in the habit of introducing interjections, spoken words, etc. into the music, hoping thereby to produce dramatic, comic or realistic effect. Far from adding significance to the music, these additions and emendations merely disfigure it. The composer desires that the singers in all his works keep strictly to the music written for them.
  3. Metronome marks must be followed accurately. This does not imply that artists should sing like clock-work, they are given full artistic scope, but they must keep within bounds.
  4. The composer feels it necessary to reiterate the following remark in lyrical passages, those actors who are on the stage, but not singing at the moment, must refrain from drawing the attention of the spectators to themselves by unnecessary by-play. An opera is first and foremost a musical work.
  5. The part of the Astrologer is written for a voice seldom met with, that of tenor-altino. It may however be entrusted to a lyric tenor possessing a strong falsetto, for the part is written in the extremely high register.
  6. The Golden Cockerel demands a strong soprano or high mezzo-soprano voice.
  7. The dances performed by the King and Queen in the second act, must be carried out so as not to interfere with the singers breathing by too sudden or too violent movement.

Staging Practices

Early stagings became influential by stressing the modernist elements inherent in the opera. Diaghilev's 1914 Paris production had the singers sitting offstage, while dancers provided the stage action. Though some in Russia disapproved of Diaghilev's interpretation, and Rimsky-Korsakov's widow threatened to sue, the production was considered a milestone. Stravinsky was to expand on this idea in the staging of his own Renard (1917) and Les Noces (1923), in which the singers are unseen, and mimes or dancers perform on stage.

Derived works

Rimsky-Korsakov made the following concert arrangement:

  • Introduction and Wedding Procession from the opera The Golden Cockerel (1907)

Введение и свадебное шествие из оперы Золотой петушок

After his death, A. Glazunov and M. Shteynberg (Steinberg) compiled the following orchestral suite:

  • Four Musical Pictures from the Opera The Golden Cockerel

Четыре музыкальных картины из оперы «Золотой петушок»

  1. Tsar Dodon at home (Царь Додон у себя дома)
  2. Tsar Dodon on the march (Царь Додон в походе)
  3. Tsar Dodon with the Shemakhan Tsaritsa (Царь Додон у Шемаханской царицы)
  4. The wedding and the lamentable end of Dodon (Свадьба и печальный конец Додона)

Selected recordings

Audio Recordings (Mainly studio recordings, unless otherwise indicated)

Source: www.operadis-opera-discography.org.uk

  • 1962, Aleksey Kovalev & Yevgeny Akulov (conductor), Moscow Radio Orchestra and Chorus, Aleksey Korolev (Tsar Dodon), Yuri Yelnikov (Tsarevich Gvidon), Aleksandr Polyakov (Tsarevich Afron), Leonid Ktitorov (General Polkan), Antonina Klescheva (Amelfa), Gennady Pishchayev (Astrologer), Klara Kadinskaya (Shemakhan Tsaritsa), Nina Polyakova (Golden Cockerel)
  • 1971, Julius Rudel (conductor), Orchestra and Chorus of the New York City Opera, Norman Treigle (King Dodon), Beverly Sills (Queen Shemakha), Enrico di Giuseppe (Astrologer), Muriel Costa-Greenspon (Amelfa), Gary Glaze (Guidon), David Rae Smith (Afron), Edward Pierson (Polkan), Syble Young (Le Coq d’or); Live performance, November 9, 1971, New York (sung in English).
  • 1985, Dimiter Manolov (conductor), Sofia National Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Nikolai Stoilov (Tsar Dodon), Ljubomir Bodurov (Prince Gvidon), Emil Ugrinov (Prince Afron), Kosta Videv (General Polkan), Evgenia Babacheva (Amelfa), Lyubomir Diakovski (Astrologer), Elena Stoyanova (Shemakhan Tsaritsa), Yavora Stoilova (Golden Cockerel)
  • 1988, Yevgeny Svetlanov (conductor), Bolshoy Theatre Orchestra and Chorus, Artur Eisen (Tsar Dodon), Arkady Mishenkin (Prince Gvidon), Vladimir Redkin (Prince Afron), Nikolay Nizinenkov (General Polkan), Nina Gaponova (Amelfa), Oleg Biktimirov (Astrologer), Yelena Brilova (Shemakhan Tsaritsa), Irina Udalova (Golden Cockerel)

References

Notes

  • Full Text of the Pushkin tale is available at Fairy Tale Fridays: The Golden Cockerel, http://journal.petajinnathandersen.com/2008/03/fairy-tale-fridays-golden-cockerel.html"

Sources

  • Abraham, Gerald (1936). Studies in Russian Music. London: William Reeves / The New Temple Press.

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