The first night of James Conway’s English Touring Opera production of The Golden Cockerel was dedicated to the people of Ukraine and to those in Russia protesting against Putin’s war of aggression. Premiered posthumously in 1909 after extensive censorship trouble, Rimsky-Korsakov’s last opera, part satire, part fairytale, is itself a dissident attack on autocracy and imperialism, written in the wake of its composer’s dismissal from the St Petersburg Conservatory for supporting student protests during the Revolution of 1905. The immediate target was military incompetence during the Russo-Japanese war. But Rimsky-Korsakov’s portrait of the paranoid King Dodon, obsessed with largely imagined enemies beyond his country’s borders, maps both on to 20th century history and the current war with disquieting prescience.
Conway’s staging, strikingly designed by Neil Irish, takes time to find its feet. We first encounter Grant Doyle’s indolent if dangerous Dodon governing from his bedroom and being literally spoon fed by his former nanny (Amy J Payne), while the Cockerel (Alys Mererid Roberts) surveys the kingdom through a telescope and shouts its intermittent warnings from a watchtower. The humour, however, is often whimsical where it should be barbed, and it is only in the second half, when the mood darkens, that the production really hits home. Russian revolutionary uniforms begin to proliferate amid the fairytale trappings, and the Astrologer (Robert Lewis) and the Queen of Shemakha (Paula Sides) – the only characters who are actually real, we are told – gradually and unsettlingly morph from fantasy figures into Rasputin and the Empress Alexandra.
Lewis and Sides also give arguably the finest performances of the evening. Neither role is easy, but Lewis is spectacularly up to the challenges of the Astrologer’s implacably high tessitura, and Sides’s seductive coloratura is both extraordinarily beautiful and exactingly precise. Doyle makes a gritty sounding Dodon, by turns gruff, preposterous and scary, while Roberts voices the Cockerel’s oracular pronouncements with admirable verve and clarity. Gerry Cornelius conducts with fine attention to detail, using a reduced orchestration by Iain Farrington that preserves much of the brilliance and sensuality of Rimsky-Korsakov’s original.