The week in classical: The Golden Cockerel; LSO/Christophers: The Creation; Bath Festival Orchestra | Classical music


A paranoid Russian ruler plunges into a disastrous war. Inept tactics lead to an appalling death toll. The confused ordinary people are kept in the dark. It’s all horribly familiar. English Touring Opera’s decision to take Rimsky-Korsakov’s sharply satirical The Golden Cockerel around the country this spring seems in equal measure to be both inspired and wincingly inappropriate. Witnessing the cartoonish deaths of young soldiers on stage feels uncomfortably crass when real guns are raging, yet when the deluded ruler declares “I’ll not listen to advice, not even to my own” it really hits home. Ridicule is the weapon despots fear most. For that reason alone this opera would not stand a chance of being staged in Moscow today.

Rimsky never saw it performed. Revolution was in the air, fuelled by the cruel suppression of dissent after the 1905 uprising and Russia’s defeat in the tsar’s ill-judged war against the Japanese. A piece that made fun of an indolent ruler and his doltish family was always going to clash with the censors and it wasn’t staged until 1909, after Rimsky’s death.

James Conway’s production – dedicated on first night to the people of Ukraine and brave protesters in Russia – takes a suitably pantomime approach, with comic-book characters decked out in Neil Irish’s primary-coloured costumes singing a rumpty-tumpty rhyming translation by Antal Doráti and James Gibson.

King Dodon, who would rather sleep than rule, fears a neighbouring state will overwhelm his country. An astrologer offers him a golden cockerel who will warn if the enemy advances. Delighted, the king offers the astrologer any reward he cares to name. He choses an IOU, which he will later redeem with devastating consequences. The cockerel crows, war ensues and many die, including the king’s two sons, who kill each other in confusion.

The first act takes a while to settle, with clumsy silliness getting in the way of the satire, not least from sons Prince Guidon and Prince Aphron (tenor Thomas Elwin and baritone Jerome Knox), though bass Grant Doyle, as the hopeless yet dangerous king, has huge fun with his knockabout role, lolling on his bed-like throne being spoon-fed by his adoring nanny Amelfa (mezzo Amy J Payne, in menacing form).

Things pick up in the second half, when we discover that Dodon’s foes are led by the alluring Queen of Shemakha. Soprano Paula Sides looks magnificent in peacock headdress and emerald gown, as imperious as the Queen of the Night. And Rimsky gives her his most interesting music, sinuous eastern melodies curling and twisting in the manner of his most popular work, Scheherazade. There were a few intonation problems on first night, the delicacy of Iain Farrington’s admirable reduced score, conducted by Gerry Cornelius, perhaps too frail at times to support her, but her commanding presence and the warmth of her coloratura were never in doubt.

There is also some extraordinary singing from tenor Robert Lewis, as the Astrologer, who tackles his uncomfortably high vocal line with ease. Bright soprano Alys Mererid Roberts, resplendent as the strutting Cockerel, has the final say, pecking the dreadful Russian ruler to death. Now there’s an idea.

More birds – and animals – were conjured at the Barbican last week when the arts centre celebrated its 40th birthday with two performances of Haydn’s gloriously ebullient oratorio, The Creation. The London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, resident at the Barbican since its opening, should have been conducted by Simon Rattle, but a minor operation prevented him appearing. His place was taken by the coolly reliable Harry Christophers, though the choir – ranged behind him in the front rows of the stalls, turning to face the audience – was under the control of chorus master Simon Halsey.

Roderick Williams and Lucy Crowe performing Haydn’s Creation with the LSO at the Barbican, London
‘Joyful playfulness’: soloists Roderick Williams and Lucy Crowe performing Haydn’s Creation with the LSO at the Barbican. Photograph: Mark Allan

This startling reverse of personnel put the choir front and centre, visually and sonically. Rarely have 100 singers been under such intense scrutiny. Discipline was high, diction superb, few heads buried in copies. Their first pianissimo entry, sung from memory, sent shivers up the spine and their burst of dazzling colour on “and there was light” was truly exciting, but some problems lurk here. The tenors in particular lack a true top, too often resorting to falsetto, too often dulling the edge of Haydn’s exciting fugal writing.

There was nothing dull about the soloists, though. Soprano Lucy Crowe, tenor Andrew Staples and baritone Roderick Williams – each great communicators – sang with joyful playfulness, Crowe particularly vivacious as Eve, representing all women with a mischievous eye-roll when pledging “obedience” to Adam. Yeah, sure.

Newly minted teenage musicians at the Bobby Moore Academy, east London, have the luck to be coached by the young players of the rejuvenated Bath Festival Orchestra. Now, for the first time – cue loud hurrahs – the school has its own 24-piece orchestra. Its members will soon be performing alongside their teachers at a series of London lunchtime concerts. In the meantime, the BFO, under conductor Peter Manning, made a truly impressive appearance at Kings Place, accompanying the brilliantly emphatic young Dutch cellist Ella van Poucke in Schumann’s Cello Concerto in A minor, dazzling us with the hot Mediterranean sunshine of Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony, and giving the UK premiere of Alba Rosa Viëtor’s Five Symphonic Sketches from 1962. This was a revelation, the pleasing dissonances and scrunchy clashes very much of their time, and no less welcome for that – rather like the best mid-20th-century sculpture, abstract yet warmly humane.

Star ratings (out of five)
The Golden Cockerel
The Creation ★★★★
Bath Festival Orchestra

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