“The tale is not true, but there’s a hint in it, a lesson for fine lads”. Alexander Pushkin


The Bolshoi Theatre is again to produce the most caustic and paradoxical of Rimsky-Korsakov’s operas, the most “unfairytale-like” of all his tales, the tale about the golden cockerel.

The Golden Cockerel was created after the infamous events of the 1905 revolution (the first musical sketches for the opera — the Cockerel theme — appeared at the end of 1906, and the whole score was finished in the course of the following year). And, of course, the tense political situation, which reigned at the time in the country, could not but find reflection in the opera. Especially since the composer himself was not a passive observer of the unrest: he supported the demands of the striking students and was dismissed from the Petersburg Conservatoire where he had been teaching since the 1870’s.

Lying at the basis of the opera is Alexander Pushkin’s tale of the same name, which, however, was significantly reworked. Librettist Vladimir Belsky highlighted different points of emphasis, added new scenes, a new character — housekeeper Amelfa, developed the characters of the rest of the personages, gave the tale sharper political and satirical edge — quite in keeping with the spirit of the times which had given rise to a burgeoning of satirical journalism.

On account of its political content, the opera was banned by the censor who saw it as an outspoken attack on the autocracy. Refusing to compromise, its author lost all hope of ever seeing it on stage. And, indeed, The Golden Cockerel was premiered a year after his death — on 14 September 1909 at Zimin’s Private Opera Company, in Moscow. The scenography was by Ivan Bilibin — and the production was impressive but in fairytale like vein, absolutely in the spirit of the World of Art movement to which the artist belonged. On 16 November of the same year, the opera got its first Bolshoi Theatre performance. Up to 1917 it was presented with changes insisted on by the censor’s office — namely, all its personages were ’demoted in rank’.

If one follows the opera’s performance history at the Bolshoi (taking into account the 1917 revival, there were a total of five productions), one finds two basic tendencies in production style. They were either stylized and ’aestheticized’ (as in Vladimir Lossky’s 1924 production — aesthetically beautiful, spectacular, emphatically theatrical, smacking of the marionette theatre, with complex plastic design), or sharply political and satirical (as in Nikolai Smolich’s 1932 version in which, for example, the Boyar Duma meets in the bath-house).

Kirill Serebrennikov, director of the present production, has opted for another solution.

Kirill Serebrennikov: “It is one of the best Russian operas — dynamic, subtly conceived, hard-hitting, paradoxical. It is an excellent combination of marvelous music, intelligent libretto, good text and very intriguing personages. It is a very sincere opera — one realizes immediately that it is a last work. For Rimsky-Korsakov it is a very important personal statement. I think it would be wrong to categorize it exclusively as a pamphlet. Such a major artist and philosopher would have been unable to limit himself to a topical response to the contemporary situation in Russia. The philosophical basis is very important in all his work. Rimsky-Korsakov is a conceptualist; he needs a program, a theory. And I am therefore sure that The Golden Cockerel is not simply a political and publicistic declaration, it is a serious philosophical statement.

Above all we have got rid of all the conventionally grotesque ethnic-’bilibinesque’ matter. In our production popular woodcut scenes are out. In this respect we will disappoint those people who expect from The Golden Cockerel a folklore ’patchwork’ of skomorokhi (wandering minstrels cum clowns — tr.n.), long beards, exaggerated Russian style... There won’t be any of this in our production. We abandon a very conventional, stylized and very theatrical world for quintessentially genuine — ’just like in the movies’ - reality.

In this opera there is a pamphlet, there is satire, but it is other things, which occupy my attention. I am more interested in Dodon’s inner world, the story of this Tsar’s last love. I think it is very intriguing. It is all about power and people in power. It is about how power impacts a man and what happens to him when he comes face to face with a miracle. It is the interrelationships between the two main personages, which form the core of our production. It won’t be quite fairytale. It will be a different story... and more human than socio-political”.

Vassily Sinaysky, Bolshoi Theatre music director and conductor in chief, conductor of the production: "For me, above all else, this is a work, which provided a very strong stimulus to other composers — Rimsky-Korsakov’s young contemporaries. In imaging the reception it got from his students, the very young Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Stravinsky and others, studying at the time at the Petersburg Conservatoire, I try above all to emphasize what they liked about it. Stravinsky, for instance, took a lot of things of a technical nature from Rimsky-Korsakov and, above all, from The Cockerel: use of harp, strings, and also the intonational sphere. All this and a lot more unite The Golden Cockerel and Petrushka.

On the other hand, I believe The Golden Cockerel is quite different to Rimsky-Korsakov’s usual style, to his more ‘usual’ works. In view of my love for and knowledge of Scheherazade, Sadko, The Tale of Tsar Saltan and The Tsar’s Bride, all of which I love conducting, I am astonished here at the degree he has departed into quite other spheres. And first and foremost I consider it important to highlight the innovations he introduced into this opera in respect of musical language, usage and modification systems of leitmotifs, harmony, and even steps towards atonality (!).

The part of Tsar Dodon is sung by Vladimir Matorin and the Ukrainian bass Alexander Teliga, The Queen of Shemakha — by artist of the Young Opera Program Venera Gimadieva and the young Polish singer Alexandra Kubas, the Astrologer — by the American tenor Jeff Martin and Helikon-Opera soloist Mikhail Seryshev, General Polkan — by Valery Gilmanov and Nikolai Kazansky, Housekeeper Amelfa — by Irina Dolzhenko and Tatiana Yerastova. Also on the podium, will be Bolshoi Theatre conductor Mikhail Granovsky.

The premiere series of performances will run from 19-23 June.