'Le Coq d'Or' was Rimsky's last opera, premièred as late as 1909. The story comes from Pushkin, but he'd been given the idea for the opera by a contemporary fairy-tale illustrator, I. Bilibin, whose cartoon of the Tsar Dodon - 'emperor of the whole earth' - was a satire on the expansionist longings of recent Russian Tsars; the Russo-Japanese War had just ended and the Russions had lost, to their amazement. Because of the obvious satirical political comments in the libretto, the première was actually delayed by a few years and indeed Rimsky died before ever seeing it staged. 'The Golden Cockerel' masquerades as a fairy-tale opera, that genre so beloved by the Russians, but the audience knew what the underlying import was, even after the Tsar's censors had forced changes to soften the satire.
Be that as it may, this production can be viewed without all the political baggage as a sumptuous and fantastic fairy tale set to music. I will not recount the plot except to say that when the Tsar Dodon discovers that his sons have been killed in battle that he has sent them into he decides that 'the older ones' (meaning himself and his older general, Polkan) should henceforth 'do the fighting' and spare the loss of the younger men of the realm. (Is that a sly comment on war in general, do you suppose?) The Tsar loses a final battle to invading forces only to find that they are commanded by a woman, the Queen of Shemakha, who on her entrance sings the only well-known aria from this opera, the so-called 'Hymn to the Sun.' He becomes besotted with love for the Queen and thus begins his downfall. His realm had been protected by the warnings of the magical Golden Cockerel, given him by the Astronomer, but at the end of the opera the Cockerel turns on him and pecks him to death. The Astronomer, in the Epilogue, asks the audience not to be too alarmed by what has happened, because 'only the Queen and I are real - all the others were simply illusions.'
The music for this opera is luscious Orientalism. The Queen's entrance aria, with which most of us are familiar from its inclusion in many recitals and TV appearances by coloratura sopranos, is typical of the Eastern melismas heard throughout the piece. There are recurring leitmotifs, most of which first occur in the prélude, and some recurring harmonic devices as well, e.g. the juxtaposition of the triads of D flat major and E major.
This production is extraordinarily beautiful visually. The simple stage setting is a neutral setting for sumptuous costumes that are Kabuki-inspired and are in saturated almost Day-Glo colors. The stage direction, done by a Kabuki actor, Ennosuke Ichikawa, requires the singers (all but one of them Russian) to move in the stereotypical style familiar from Kabuki theater. They all have the heavy Kabuki mask-like make-up. (Indeed, when I first saw the Astronomer I thought he was WEARING a mask until I saw a muscle twitch!) There is a good bit of very effective dancing - Rimsky included a fair amount of ballet music in the piece - which is also in the stylized Kabuki style. All in all, then, this production comes across as something both exotic and exciting, and in my view it fits the exotic story quite well. I'm not generally a fan of changing the settings of operas, but in this case it works very well, at least partly because for Western viewers Fairy-Tale Land and Japanese Kabuki theater have much in common.
The singers are, without exception, wonderful. In particular I would single out the rich-voiced basso of Albert Schagidullin as King Dodon, and the spot-on colorature of Olga Trifonova as the proto-Turandot Queen of Shemakha. My highest praise goes to the high tenor of Barry Banks as the Astronomer. I'd love to hear/see him in Prokofiev's 'The Nose' whose protagonist has a similar almost impossibly high tessitura.
The production was filmed at a live performance at the Châtelet in Paris. The wonderful chorus was imported from the Mariinsky in St. Petersburg, and the Orchestre de Paris was led with a light hand and rhythmic flexibility by American conductor Kent Nagano. This is a short opera - only about 1h45m - and the end came too soon.
This production of a rarely mounted opera is recommended for those wishing to broaden their operatic horizons.