Review: Santa Fe Opera’s Glistening “Golden Cockerel” Starring Venera Gimadieva – July 28, 2017

Santa Fe Opera mounted Rimsky-Korsakov’s exotic opera “The Golden Cockerel [Le Coq d’Or]”

British Director Paul Curran partnered with Irish Set and Costume Designer Gary McCann and New York Projections Designer Driscoll Otto to create an eye-pleasing, humor-filled production, but one whose dark symbolism foretells the destruction of an autocratic monarchy.

Venera Gimadieva’s Queen of Shemakha and Tim Mix’ King Dodon

The opera was the occasion of the Santa Fe Opera debut of Russian soprano Venera Gimadieva as the Queen of Shemakha, a mysterious woman who infatuates King Dodon, ultimately destroying both Dodon’s life and kingdom.

Elegantly gowned, Gimadieva was a captivating Queen of Shemakha, brilliantly performing the opera’s most famous number, the Hymn to the Sun. Although the Queen appears only in the last half of the opera, the music she sings and Gimadieva’s performance were the evening’s highlights.

[Below: Venera Gimadieva as the Queen of Shemakha; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Baritone Tim Mix, who replaced a previously announced artist for the entire season, was vocally strong, performing the role of the hapless King Dodon. Mix’ Dodon showed just the right mix of bluster as he asserted his ultimately-to-be shredded claim of absolute power.

[Below: King Dodon (Tim Mix, right) gives his heart and kingdom to the Queen of Shemakha (Venera Gimadieva, left); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Barry Banks’ Astrologer and Kasia Borowiec’s Coq d’Or

The excellent British lyric tenor Barry Banks left a strong impression as the mysterious Astrologer, whose magical incantations begin and end the opera. The Astrologer role requires power high in the tenor range which Banks dispatched with authority.

[For my review of another Barry Banks performance, see Claycomb, Podles, Banks Shine in Houston “Fille du Regiment” – November 3, 2007.]

[Below: Tenor Barry Banks, who played the role of the Astrologer in the Santa Fe Opera’s production of “Le Coq d’Or”; edited image, based on a publicity photograph.]

New Jersey soprano Kasia Borowiec was a bright-voiced Golden Cockerel, although her presence was always in the form of a projected image of the excitable cockerel.

Kevin Burdette’s General Polkan and Meredith Arwady’s Amelfa

King Dodon’s chief military expert, General Polkan was well-sung and played with gusto by New York basso buffo Kevin Burdette. The character of Polkan allowed Burdette the opportunity for the brand of physical comedy that Santa Fe Opera has featured so often over the past half-decade. [See Buff Buffo: An Interview with Kevin Burdette.]

[Below: King Dodon (Tim Mix, astride horse) is cheered on by Amelfa (Meredith Arwady, right, holding sword) and General Polkan (Kevin Burdette, left); edited image, based on a Paul Horpedahl photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Michigan contralto Meredith Arwady, who is sought out by opera companies for the contralto roles in Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelungs”, is peerless in comic roles that require vocal strength in the lower ranges of the female voice.

At Santa Fe Opera, she has been enlisted for operas by composers as diverse as Vivaldi, Mozart and Stravinsky [See Review: A Hilarious “Impresario” Creates a “Rossignol” Land of Enchantment – Santa Fe Opera, August 1, 2014.]

The role of Amelfa proved to be an especially felicitous one for Arwady, who has abundant opportunity to show off her vocal prowess as well as her comic skills.

[[Below: Amelfa (Meredith Arwady, center, in red) shares her thoughts with the assembled crowd; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Richard Smagur’s Prince Guidon and Jorge Espino’s Prince Afron

Playing King Dodon’s stupid sons, Prince Guidon and Prince Afron, were the province of Georgia tenor Richard Smagur and Mexican baritone Jorge Espino. Both were vocally strong, and were convincing as headstrong scions of the autocratic Dodon. Both characters, who manifested juvenile sibling rivalry, managed to kill each other when tested in battle.

[Below: King Dodon (Tim Mix, right, standing on throne) listens to the disputes of his sons Prince Guidon (Richard Smagur, fourth from left) and Prince Afron (Jorge Espino, third from left); edited image, based on a Paul Horpedahl photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Maestro Emmanuel Villaume and the Musical Performance

French conductor Emmanuel Villaume led the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra in a majestically-contoured, sensitive performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Orientalist” score. The Orchestra gave a fine peformance.

Maestro Villaume is music director of The Dallas Opera which will mount the Curran production in a subsequent season.

Pennsylvania tenor Adam Bonnani was the First Boyar. British bass Simon Dyer was the Second Boyar.

Paul Curran’s Direction, Gary McCann’s Scenic and Costume Design and Driscoll Otto’s Projections

Scottish director Paul Curran, partnered with Scenic and Costume Designer Gary McCann, created a colorful fantasy world that fits nicely with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Orientalist music that evokes Russian folklore and, at its elemental level, the Russian fairy tale.

[Below: King Dodon (Tim Mix, center, right) introduces his bride, the Queen of Shemakha (Venera Gimadieva, center, left) to his court; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

I admired a previous Curran-McCann collaboration [World Premiere Review: A Lavish Dallas Opera Production for Mark Adamo’s “Becoming Santa Claus” – December 4, 2015], which also featured McCann’s brightly colored costumes.

The use of projections from New York designer Driscoll Otto also enhanced the production’s charm.

[Below: King Dodon (Tim Mix, lying on throne) dreams of the Queen; edited image, based on a Paul Horpedahl photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

The Darker Meanings of “The Golden Cockerel”

Although director Curran’s presentation can be enjoyed as a lighthearted fantasy, he assures that the opera’s darker themes are always in evidence just below the surface.

Composer Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera utilized Vladimir Belsky’s libretto based on Alexander Pushkin’s fairy tale of the same name (itself suggested by American author Washington Irving’s “Tales from the Alhambra”).

[Below: Alexander Pushkin, resized image, based on Kiprensky’s portrait.]

Both Pushkin and Rimsky-Korsakov were victims of repressive policies of, respectively, the Russian Tsars Nicholas I and Nicholas II. “The Golden Cockerel” both in its form as fairy tale, (Pushkin’s last fairy tale) and opera (Rimsky-Korsakov’s last opera) are bitter satires on the arbitrariness and repressiveness of Russian tsars.

By extension, Curran understands the opera to be an indictment of all arbitrary rulers, Russian or otherwise.

[Below: Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov; resized image of an 1897 photograph.]

The allegorical significance of the characters in Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera, whose appearance in Pushkin’s story seems so prescient, were unmistakable and the censors assured the opera would not be performed in Rimsky-Korsakov’s lifetime.

[Below: Queen Alexandra of Russia.]

King Dodon was Tsar Nicholas II, whose 1905 war with Japan was only the first of Nicholas’ disastrous military adventures. The Queen of Shemakha was Nicholas’ very unpopular German wife, Alexandra. The Astrologer was the Queen’s trusted adviser Grigori Rasputin, who purported to know how to cure Alexandra’s hemophiliac son, the Tsarevich Alexei.

Rasputin’s influence on the tsar’s family began two year’s before the opera’s 1907 premiere. Rasputin and the tsarina became a catalyst for all Russian anti-tsarist and revolutionary forces.

The opera can therefore be appreciated on two levels – one the exhibition Rimsky-Korsakov’s exotic music enshrining Pushkin’s fairy tale – the other as a bitter indictment of a regime that was as foolish as it was authoritarian.


I enthusiastically recommend “The Golden Cockerel” for its cast and production, both for the veteran operagoer and the person new to opera.