Rimsky-Korsakov’s Golden Cockerel at La Monnaie

I had not appreciated until last night’s performance by the Brussels Opera, how subversive a piece is Rimsky-Korsakov’s Golden Cockerel, looking forward to Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita and even Ionesco. And Laurent Pelly’s superb production caught exactly the right balance between fairy tale, fantasy and political allegory without making the last of these too prominent. Particularly convincing was the second act when, after a ridiculous battle, the idiotic King Dodon encounters and is seduced by the Tsarina of Chemakha. As spectator, you begin by thinking that he is at last being made aware of a life of beauty and sensuality far removed from his previous existence of idleness, boredom and trivialities. Then gradually it dawns on you that sexuality is a weapon of political power, particularly when the handmaidens of the Princess turn out to be female commandos. So also, as the costumes of the chorus evolve from those of court lackeys to the garbs of a poor and oppressed population, it becomes clear who are the real victims of the autocratic nonsense, and – although the connection is not made explicit – we cannot be far from Putin’s Russia. This most effective conception was enhanced by Pelly’s costumes, the decors of Barbara de Limburg and Joel Adam’s lighting: sterile whiteness for Dodon’s kingdom, a massive net-like coil for the Princess’s tent set against seductive blues and crimsons, a prancing vivid Cockerel as the instrument of truth.

In the pit was La Monnaie’s new musical director Alain Altinoglu and, on the evidence of this performance, a better choice could not have been made. The very Russian character of the score, with its melodic hints of Central Asia, its colours, its rhythmic pliancy, its delicate phrases and its humorous plodding – all of this was brought out in his impressive interpretation. While there were no extraordinary voices present, all of the cast were, dramatically and musically, admirable. All in all, an excellent evening, leaving one with the conviction that the work is a 20th century  operatic masterpiece.