Classical: Royal Opera has nothing to get cocky about

Royal Opera: The Golden Cockerel Sadler's Wells, EC1 D'Oyly Carte: The Pirates of Penzance Queen's Theatre, W1

As the Royal Opera retreats into a costly 12-month leave of absence, it would be some small comfort to report that the last new show we'll get from the company until it returns to Covent Garden next December is a triumph. And if The Golden Cockerel were the work of Opera North, or Garsington, or some ambitious touring enterprise with half a budget, maybe "triumph" wouldn't be the wrong word. Tim Hopkins's school-of-Richard- Jones production has some nicely crazy, off-the-wall ideas. The singing ranges upward from not bad to seriously distinguished. And despite a last- minute change of conductor on the opening night that hustled Vladimir Jurowski on to the stand with not enough rehearsal time, the orchestral sound is pretty good.

Young Vladimir Jurowski is a star in the making - as you'll know if you witnessed his previous Royal Opera appearance, stepping in for Edward Downes in Nabucco, or his current WNO Hansel and Gretel which was shown on Channel 4 on Christmas Day. But the fact remains that this Golden Cockerel is not an Opera North show. It's the work of a supposedly front- rank international company. And by those standards it falls flat - for much the same reason that the Royal Opera's Bartered Bride falls flat. It has no energy, no life. From curtain up, you sense a sigh of corporate resignation. And in the soulless box which is the auditorium of the new but not especially exciting Sadler's Wells, it isn't helped by thin designs (Anthony Baker) and a production concept that only delivers half the piece.

Like most Rimsky-Korsakov operas, The Golden Cockerel is a fairy fantasy which manages to present itself as something steeped in Russian folk- consciousness, even though its provenance (via Pushkin) is a Washington Irving story set in Moorish Spain. A lazy, stupid Tsar, unable to protect his country from its enemies, is persuaded by his astrologer to rely on the services of a golden cockerel (ie, a weather-vane) to tell him what to do. The result is disaster, humiliation, and ultimately death, when the cockerel pecks the Tsar on the head. Rimsky's interest in the story was undoubtedly prompted by the real-life military incompetence of Nicholas II in the then-recent Russo-Japanese war. And Rimsky's response was accordingly a cocktail of fairy magic and absurdist satire: an extension of the literary tone of voice in Gogol, and the precedent for a whole subculture of Russian opera of which Prokofiev's Love for Three Oranges and Shostakovich's The Nose are prime examples.

The problem with this Tim Hopkins show, though, is that it runs with the satire and dumps the magic. Turning the cockerel into a symbol of proletarian revolution is fair game, as is the grandiloquent May Day parade of Soviet achievements that Hopkins interpolates into a big finale: so much of Rimsky's score is parody music, it invites that sort of cartoon gesture. But so much of Rimsky's score is also music of enchantment, ravishing and seductive. None of that gets any visual return here. There are two casts, alternating, and Cast A is mostly from Russia (or associated territories), led by Paata Burchuladze, who gives as full and rounded an account of the Tsar as the piece or the production permit. The Russian- Greek soprano Elena Kelessidi was ailing on the first night but still charming (in the tightly focused, elegant way of her recent Royal Opera Violettas) as the temptress Queen of Shemakha. And that bizarre haute- contre tenor Jean-Paul Fouchecourt (star of Covent Garden's Platee) finds a good home for his specialist skills in the dog-pitch role of the astrologer - set so high because Pushkin passingly describes the character as a eunuch.

As a footnote I should add that however disappointing the Cockerel might be, it shines brightly by comparison with the new (if you can call it that) D'Oyly Carte Pirates of Penzance. In two decades of sitting through dispiriting performances of Gilbert & Sullivan, I don't think I've ever seen anything so feeble, so pathetic, so embarrasingly bad. Certainly nothing with the audacity to call itself a professional production and charge West End prices. If this is the best D'Oyly Carte can do, it would be better for all concerned if the company accepted the inevitable and quietly died. As things are now, it's just a sad, incompetent purveyor of misplaced nostalgia.

`The Golden Cockerel': Sadler's Wells, EC1 (0171 863 8000), to 16 January. `Pirates of Penzance': Queen's Theatre, W1 (0171 494 5040), to 9 January.

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