Scenic designer David P. Gordon wins the Golden Cockerel Award for best achievement in set design and Howard Tsvi Kaplan comes in a close second for his costumes in Sarasota Opera’s production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s rarely performed work, “The Golden Cockerel.” But there’s more to opera than colorful scenery and beautiful costumes. There must be energy and acting, great orchestral playing and, of course, electrifying singing. Sarasota Opera came through in some of these categories, but not all.
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, the composer who wove musically spellbinding tales in his mesmerizing “Scheherazade,” took us on an excursion to Spain via “Capriccio Espagnol,” gave us a taste of Orthodox religion in his “Russian Easter Overture” and allowed us a few good swats as he took off on “The Flight of the Bumblebee,” seems to have had a single motif for his opera, “The Golden Cockerel.” Where most composers of operas have motifs for each character or idea (think Wagner), Rimsky-Korsakov has one theme that starts in the Overture and continues through each act, especially in the “Hymn to the Sun,” probably the best-known aria in the piece, sung by the Queen of Shemakha. Perhaps that’s why so much of this opera sounds familiar. After all, it has not been performed in this country since the production in the late 1960s at New York City Opera starring Beverly Sills and Norman Treigle. Although I was in that audience, that was a long time ago and I haven’t heard it since.
Sometimes operas and symphonies that are rarely performed have a reason for their obscurity. It may be that “The Golden Cockerel” falls into this category. Or it may be that the production at Sarasota Opera wasn’t up to the company’s usual excellence.
Certainly the singing was good. After a slightly shaky start, which, unfortunately, featured her big aria opening the second act, Alexandra Batsios, as The Queen, came into good voice and negotiated the vast range and coloratura passages the composer wrote for her part. She’s a good actress, too; she managed to dance through the stylized staging by Tom Diamond without looking self-conscious or strained. An American singer, she handled the Russian deftly.
Grigory Soloviov and Timur Bekbosunov were the two Russians in principal parts and they seemed born to the music. Soloviov gave us an unflinching King Dodon with a powerful baritone verging on the bass. And Bekbosunov traversed deathly high notes that would make Juan Diego Florez blanch.
The smaller parts were, for the most part, taken by Studio Artists, including the King’s sons (Jon Jurgens and Kenneth Stavert), General Polkan (William Roberts) and the Golden Cockerel (Riley Svatos). Special mention must be made of Studio Artist Daryl Freedman who sang the part of the Housekeeper with a large, round contralto with a great top extension.
And then there was the chorus — the resonant, magnificent chorus (Chorus Master Roger Bingaman) that rang through the house like a Russian choir on Easter.
So, if the singing, scenery and costumes were splendid, what was the problem with this “Golden Cockerel”? Well, there were coordination problems in the orchestra. The strings, which are usually so good in this instrumental ensemble, just weren’t together. And, although conductor Ekhart Wycik kept things well paced with a nice forward movement, there were several times the singers and his orchestra were askew.
It was opening night so one hopes the kinks in the curtain’s openings and closings will get worked out, as well as the curtain calls at the end of each act, which seemed unrehearsed and messy.
But the main difficulty with this production was the overly styled staging, which lacked energy, direction and focus. Diamond didn’t seem to grasp the concept of this fairy tale and its politicized doctrine. He played it too broadly or, at times, not at all, leaving the performers to wander about the stage, seemingly without thought for who they are or what they’re doing.
There are many facets to opera, and the music, singing and brilliant colors of “The Golden Cockerel” may be enough to carry some into this odd land of disenchantment. I wanted more.