Royal Opera: A sumptuous tale with an extra twist

THE GOLDEN COCKEREL SADLER'S WELLS THEATRE LONDON

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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum