Melodious-Oriental Opera Score in Search of a Plot

The Russian opera-fantasy “The Golden Cockerel” brings the glorious music of Eastern exoticism by Rimsky-Korsakov onto the stage here, with voluptuous courtly costumes fitting the 1907 era when it debuted.

But, saddled with a puerile libretto in Russian, not even the brilliant stage direction by Paul Curran could save this farcical tale about an impotent, buffoonish ruler more obsessed with personal comfort than the well-being of his people. The intent was clearly to satirize the real Tsar then, and perhaps even ruling luminaries of our time in this revival.

The fairy tale traced to Washington Irving and Pushkin uses the familiar icon of the magical bird-woman (Cockerel) overseeing a never-never land in chaos. The dominant figure however is the hard-to-cast Queen of Shemakha who doesn’t show until an hour into the drama. The queen uses feminine wiles to conquer the King Dodon, including a sensuous speech detailing her thighs, breasts and other attractions, followed by above-par disrobing. (The tsar banning this opera in 1907 may have been as concerned about the sexuality as much as by his satirazation.)

It’s like casting Salome: Either you go for the body, or the voice. Here, the choice was the curvaceous body, with the Queen of soprano Venera Gimadieva. Though quite serviceable, her voice was penetrating more than voluptuous.

Baritone Tim Mix played the hapless king with the oversize gold throne (Remind you of any one in politics?), while character tenor Barry Banks did the Astrologer with panic in his voice. Emmanuel Villaume led the sumptuous score and weathered a slip or two in the ensemble. Special credit to Gary McCann, whose old-Russian-court costume design matched the music. Rimsky’s score with the oriental scales is memorable long after the fairy tale is past, pointing the way toward the Stravinsky scores yet to come, particularly “Firebird.”

Finally, we cannot forget the scenic wonders added on by Mother Nature and her idyllic orange sunsets visible through the open stage of this wondrous indoor-outdoor theater, with further punctuation from the lightning bolts of distant desert storms when heard July 19. These desert nights outside Sante Fe are a valid attraction in themselves.

Santa Fe (NM) Opera, “The Golden Cockerel” playing through Aug. 18. In Russian, with supertitle translations. Santa Fe Opera, Crosby Theatre. Two hours, 20 minutes; one intermission. For SFO info: (800) 280-4654, or go online.


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