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Royal Opera: A sumptuous tale with an extra twist

IT'S IN the stars. In sleep. In dreams. Night skies, night sweats, magic and mayhem, babushka dolls containing nasty surprises, birds of paradise and of prey - and beds, lots of beds. These are the recurring images of Tim Hopkins's compelling new Royal Opera production of Rimsky- Korsakov's The Golden Cockerel. In its day, the opera - the composer's last - was considered subversive. Pushkin, on whose satirical poem it was based, fell out of favour with Tsar Nicholas I. Nicholas II's censors suppressed the work. Hopkins shows us why. And then he shows us how. He plucks away at its beautiful plumage, he resists the ravishment, the eastern promise of Rimsky's bejewelled score, he inhabits its shadows, he dwells on the grubby truths which underscore the fairy tale, he looks to the dark side of the moon and stars.

Enter, then, the astrologer: story-teller, fortune-teller, sometime magician. Actually, when we first discover him, he and his beautiful assistant are in bed. As we later learn, they alone are the flesh and blood of this unsettling entertainment. Everything and everybody else is of their making, figments of their imagination and ours. Not surprisingly - but ingeniously - she turns out to be the beautiful Queen of Shemakhan who will be Tsar Dodon's undoing. In the first of several arresting theatrical coups, Hopkins plays the opening of the piece like a false start, taking out one curtain and bringing in another to mark the distinction between what is real and what is imagined. Magician and assistant - he in gaudy cerise velvet, she in a figure-hugging, gold-sequined number - now reveal to us a giant babushka doll containing - wait for it - a real babushka. In another neat and cynical twist, she is the voice of the cockerel seated at the side of the stage with her music stand and score, crowing on cue, but patiently awaiting her moment to deliver the death blow. A Russian mother who won't yield to mother Russia.

And so the diary of a madman - Tsar Dodon - is now under way. He who would sleep-walk his way through responsibility, who would sacrifice his own sons to superstition and whim, whose dreams, whose delusions are all on celluloid - like movies in his mind re-run nightly (by our friend the astrologer, of course) - is a ludicrous but terrifying figure of fun. The fool who would be king. He and his court look and behave - in Anthony Baker's striking black and white designs - like the Eisenstein cartoon that never was. Succumbing to the counterfeit charms of his queen-to-be, Hopkins has the booming bass of Paata Burchuladze singing and dancing like Boris Yeltsin on the night of his election. We can no longer hide behind the fantasy.

With the triumphant procession of Dodon and his new bride, Hopkins mounts a kind of fantastical May Day parade, a chronicle of Russian propaganda, from framed photographs of her imperial past to representatives of industry and the military bearing models of their hardware, and climaxing with a space-walking cosmonaut. The apposition there of Rimsky's brazenly upbeat triumphalism and the weightless slow-motion and spotless white of the cosmonaut made for a thrilling theatricality.

Vladimir Jurowski (moved up from later performances to substitute for Gennadi Rozhdestvensky) duly took this as his moment to unrein the Royal Opera Orchestra. His was an unusually subtle and supple response to a score whose fragrance and refulgency can so easily detract from its underlying remorsefulness. Beneath all that luminous melodic and harmonic filigree, a queasiness pervades. The Astrologer sets the tone with his strange, distracted otherworldly falsetto. Jean-Paul Fouchecourt caught the vocal ambiguity beautifully. As did the shapely Elena Kelessidi, suddenly, startlingly reborn as the Queen of Shemakhan, her "languid airs" festooned in shimmering coloratura to match the spotlit gold of her attire. The mysterious cockerel in female form. The bird of paradise. Apologies were given on her behalf for a viral infection, but you would never have known it. Musically and dramatically, this was an accomplished evening.

As the final words of text came home to roost, so to speak, Hopkins, one felt, had nailed the subtext. "What will the new dawn bring?" asked the chorus, receding once more into the snowy darkness. "Emptiness," came the reply. Small wonder Tsar Nicholas II was not enamoured.