For their inaugural Adelaide Festival in 2017, Joint Artistic Directors Neil Armfield and Rachel Healy programmed Barrie Kosky’s dazzling production of Handel’s oratorio Saul as the opening weekend centrepiece.
Kosky – the now legendary Melbourne-born, Berlin-based director – was no stranger to the Adelaide Festival, having been its Artistic Director in 1996 at the age of 29, but Saul was the first work of his to be presented at the Festival. Originally staged at Glyndebourne Festival Opera in 2015, it sold out in Adelaide and proved a sensation.
In 2019, Armfield and Healy programmed Kosky’s Komische Oper Berlin production of The Magic Flute, co-directed with Suzanne Andrade from British theatre company 1927, which was also a sell-out hit.
The Adelaide Festival announced today that Koksy’s production of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s last opera The Golden Cockerel will be the centrepiece of the 2022 program. Tickets will doubtless fly out of the door given Kosky’s reputation for bringing a fresh, startling, frequently grotesque but brilliant vision to his opera productions.
“We have been hounded by festival audiences to ‘bring back Barrie!’ His operas have such immediate appeal to young audiences and opera first-timers, while also attracting seasoned opera lovers, so we’re thrilled to announce The Golden Cockerel as the third part of the Kosky trifecta,” said Armfield.
“If you’re transported by Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, or Flight of the Bumble Bee, you’ll fall in love with this richly melodic, kaleidoscopic work. And we’re doubly proud that this will be the first time the opera has been staged in Australia since it was written in 1908 – your first experience of this glorious work will be in the most beautiful and original production imaginable.”
The Golden Cockerel has a libretto by Vladimir I. Bielski based on Alexander Pushkin’s verse tale. Half surreal fairy-tale, half political satire, Rimsky-Korsakov wrote it as a thinly veiled commentary on Tsar Nicholas II’s disastrous campaign in the Russo-Japanese war. Not surprisingly it fell foul of Tsarist censors and wasn’t premiered until 1909, a year after Rimsky-Korsakov’s death.
In the opera, the indolent Tsar Dodon lies in bed, dreaming of retirement. If only people would stop invading his country. His astrologer offers him a golden cockerel with magical powers, which can tell him where the danger is coming from. In this case, it arrives from the East in the shape of a charming, oriental princess, determined to conquer his kingdom.
Kosky’s stunning dreamscape production was originally scheduled for the 2020 Festival D’Aix-en-Provence but had to be postponed due to COVID. Instead it was performed there this July, after making its premiere at Opéra National de Lyon in May, where it was rapturously received.
In a five-star review Bachtrack described it as “a triumphant evening” and said: “Political satire and fantastical fairy tale rolled into one, Le Coq d’Or seems an opera tailor-made for Barrie Kosky. He rises to the challenge with dark wit spiced with surreal burlesque – a chorus line of dancing horse heads in stockings and suspenders, anyone? Classic Kosky.”
“You wish it would never end… The Golden Cockerel is certainly the Rimsky-Korsakov masterpiece,” said Opera Today.
In an interview for Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, Kosky said that the opera is a complex, tricky piece to stage. “In a way it’s one of the hardest of Rimsky-Korsakov’s operas because it’s neither a folk opera – so many of them are wonderful Russian folk operas – or an epic, enormous panorama like Sadko and [The Legend of the Invisible City of] Kitezh. So in the oeuvre of Rimsky-Korsakov it’s very unique.”
Kosky believes that for various reasons, “it doesn’t have to be set in a Russian world and for me this is the first decision we made. I said, ‘no, no it has to be a strange universal dream set nowhere in particular,’” said Kosky.
“Of course, there is a quite savage satire here about power, the corruption of power, blindness of power, absolutely. And the people at the end have a very ambiguous attitude towards their king … But much more interesting to me – which is the centre of the piece – is who is this Queen? What is his relationship to this woman? What is the humiliation that she makes him undergo? What is this madness? What is that bird? The piece is called ‘The Golden Cockerel’. What is that bird? What is that amazing ending where [the king] is pecked to death by his own bird?” said Kosky.
“So these things interest me. And these things of course have a political undercurrent, but the psychological, erotic landscape of the piece, I think, is more interesting for me.”
The Adelaide Festival production is a co-production with Opéra National de Lyon, Festival International d’Art Lyrique d’Aix-en-Provence, National de Lyon and Komische Oper Berlin, in association with Adelaide Symphony Orchestra.
It will feature British-Ukrainian bass-baritone Pavlo Hunka as the king, Russian lyric coloratura soprano Venera Gimadieva as the queen, and Russian tenor Andrei Popov as the astrologer. The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra will play the voluptuous, melodic score under the baton of its former Music Director, Arvo Volmer.
“I am thrilled to be coming back to Adelaide Festival with an opera production that means so much to me, and very grateful to be a part of another incredible festival curated by Neil and Rachel,” said Kosky.
“Adelaide Festival holds a special place in my heart; it is my favourite arts festival in all the world and I have my fingers crossed that I’ll be able to attend.”
The Golden Cockerel will play in the Adelaide Festival Centre, 4–9 March, 2022 as part of the Adelaide Festival.