For a supposedly great and mighty ruler, Tsar Dodon seems a little lost. Once known for his ruthless war-making, we find him in a funk: his armour doesn’t fit any more, his shield is rusted. He stumbles around a kingdom of grey dirt and tall grass, rattling his sabre and wearing a singlet caked in grease and grime. Even from the back of Adelaide’s Festival Theatre stalls, you can almost sense the Cheeto dust down his front.
His two heirs jostle for his favour and greedily eye his crown, played by Samuel Dundas and Nicholas Jones as corporate fail-sons in slick business suits. As has become his signature, the Berlin-based Australian director Barrie Kosky has uprooted Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1907 opera from its Russian folkloric setting, and goes wherever his sense of macabre whimsy takes us.
Kosky’s knack for the playful and absurd announces itself when we meet the soldiers and generals in Dodon’s orbit. Recalling the giant schnozzes of his 2016 mounting of Shostakovich’s The Nose, Kosky depicts this compliant machinery of war as a pack of giant horse heads, bobbing on stockinged legs and cantering comically around the stage. They quiver with fear and nod along to their monarch’s whims. “Fools, yes we are,” they echo in agreement, after invoking Dodon’s scorn.
Dodon is convinced that foreign invaders amass at his borders, and loses sleep plotting pre-emptive action. He is visited by a bearded, loftily-voiced Astrologer (Andrei Popov), who brings the perfect gift for a paranoid king who has it all: a golden cockerel that will warn him of danger. From its perch atop the dead tree that looms over the stage, the man-sized cockerel is a featherless, gold-smeared, Guillermo del Toro-worthy goblin-bird (Matthew Whittet). Its heraldic warning call, sung offstage by soprano Samantha Clarke, only serves to raise the tsar’s stress levels. Soon, the princes are sent off to war.
Completed shortly before his death, Rimsky-Korsakov’s final work arrived in the wake of the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905. Now, 113 years after its premiere in 1909, Kosky’s interpretation marks its first ever performance in Australia after premiering at France’s Festival d’Aix-en-Provence in 2021. As far as century-old commentaries on Russian autocracy and doomed foreign policy go, it could hardly have arrived at a more pointed moment, performed by a European and Australian cast that includes both Russian and Ukrainian performers. The tsar himself is played by British Ukrainian bass-baritone Pavlo Hunka, who this week has been vocal in his condemnation of that other Russian autocrat.
But this fairytale, based on an 1834 poem by Alexander Pushkin, moves beyond surface-level geopolitical parallels. When Dodon ventures out to learn of his sons’ war efforts, he crosses paths with the Queen of Chemakha (Venera Gimadieva), a foreign tsaritsa with designs on his kingdom. She’s played like a seductive old Hollywood starlet, dress fringed with long sparkling tassels and backed by four dazzling male courtiers who dance and strut around her.
As Dodon grows besotted by her beguiling movements, the ageing patriarch channels his insecurity into the leering pursuit of the young and virginal. But the tsaritsa plays to his vanity, entitlement and desire, and soon he’s willing to do just about anything to win her – he begrudgingly sings for her, and even tries, humiliatingly, to learn to dance for her. It looks like the feared tsar might end up surrendering for love, rather than war.
Ever since his fabled stint as Adelaide festival’s youngest-ever director back in 1996, Kosky’s name has been whispered around town with reverence and glee. Current festival co-directors Rachel Healy and Neil Armfield have wisely made him a key plank of their tenure, first with 2017’s Saul and then The Magic Flute in 2019.
The Golden Cockerel is a different beast, and only for a few moments does it approach the kind of colourful, ensemble spectacle that seared Saul into audiences’ memories. (It does, however, share its appreciation for a good decapitated prop head). But this is a funny, pathos-laden production, full of weirdly satisfying surprises. Rimsky-Korsakov’s final score is a dizzying parting gift to the vocalists of the world, but the principal cast are in fine form with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra underneath them.
After the initial bombast of all the king’s horses and his douchebag sons, it’s Gimadieva and Hunka’s strange courtship that gives The Golden Cockerel its hypnotic energy, as we watch the tsar and tsaritsa pit youth, beauty and ambition against age and hubris. And like any good fable, the cockerel inevitably comes home to roost – and Kosky doesn’t disappoint.