Russian Arts: The Golden Cockerel

With the "main stage" of the Bolshoi closed and the "new stage" unattractive to the prestige-obsessed Muscovite elite, it is now possible to see many of the highlights of Russian 19th and 20th-century opera and ballet from seats in the middle of the orchestra or first tier for ten to fifteen dollars if you buy tickets right before the show. On Friday, March 3rd, and on the eve of the "Women's Day" holiday, March 8th, The Golden Cockerel was performed in all its bombastic fairy-tale splendor. Not being an opera expert, or even really knowing much more about music than how to play the piano - and that only for a few years now - the most striking aspects of the opera are initially the opulent stage decorations and elaborate costumes. These are particularly astonishing to someone who has grown up under the influence of minimalism and stripped-down set designs in the West. It's as if Postmodernism has penetrated Russia as little as the Enlightment did in its time.Another generally welcome piece, above all for those of us who are accustomed to the Playbill trash in New York, is the extensive information offered in the booklet on the performance. It may cost you something, but it also offers you something in return: namely, the entire text of the production (sometimes even the translation in English), a couple of essays, in this case, one interpretive, one about the history of its staging, and - what even NY Playbills manage - a list of the performers.The opera itself, to an artist but not a musician, offers much for both the imagination and the ear. The fairy tale, introduced by tingling bells, its prologue then chanted to the audience by the wizard (astrologist) who will eventually close it out with an equally melodic epilogue, makes a mockery of czarist rule, the figure of a czar himself, the folk who follow him blindly, the Russian attitude (specifically the symbolists) toward reason and logic (embodied in the figure of the Voyevode) as well as idealism - all of which can be understood by perusing the five page essay included in the program in Russian and English.On a spiritual level the fairy tale offers a trip from the worldly affairs of a Boyar Council about the safety of the kingdom into a surreal world of oriental goddess-bewitchers called into existence by a wizard who also gives Czar Dodon the opera's eponymous cockerel which will protect his kingdom from invaders. This climaxes at the outset of the third act when Czar Dodon and his new wife, Czarina Shchemakhanka, enter with her toupe, a motely group of exquisitely dressed dancers twirling colourful shields, flouncing in swirling baggy pants, dressed up as grotesque animals, with the Czar and Czarina entering in their wake.Finally, the Czar refuses to fulfill the promise he made when the wizard gave him the golden rooster - to grant the wizard his first wish. He belittles the wizard's wish to have the Czarina Shchemakhanka, killing him when the wizard insists. The kingdom disappears and again the otherworldly music tingles back after drums roll and smoke covers the stage: the wizard returns to life and assures his audience that the only real people there were the irreal Czarina and himself. With this opera Rimsky-Koroskov, too, departed into the other world.
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