The Golden Cockerel review – dazzling opera about a mad Russian autocrat

Adelaide festival, Festival Theatre
Director Barrie Kosky dusts off a 113-year-old tale of a tsar’s midlife crisis, never before seen in Australia – and the result is dizzying and hypnotic

For a supposedly great and mighty ruler, Tsar Dodon seems a little lost. Once known for his ruthless war-making, we find him in a funk: his armour doesn’t fit any more, his shield is rusted. He stumbles around a kingdom of grey dirt and tall grass, rattling his sabre and wearing a singlet caked in grease and grime. Even from the back of Adelaide’s Festival Theatre stalls, you can almost sense the Cheeto dust down his front.

His two heirs jostle for his favour and greedily eye his crown, played by Samuel Dundas and Nicholas Jones as corporate fail-sons in slick business suits. As has become his signature, the Berlin-based Australian director Barrie Kosky has uprooted Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1907 opera from its Russian folkloric setting, and goes wherever his sense of macabre whimsy takes us.

Kosky’s knack for the playful and absurd announces itself when we meet the soldiers and generals in Dodon’s orbit. Recalling the giant schnozzes of his 2016 mounting of Shostakovich’s The Nose, Kosky depicts this compliant machinery of war as a pack of giant horse heads, bobbing on stockinged legs and cantering comically around the stage. They quiver with fear and nod along to their monarch’s whims. “Fools, yes we are,” they echo in agreement, after invoking Dodon’s scorn.

Adelaide Festival 2022: The Golden Cockerel, directed by Barrie Kosky
Dodon (Pavlo Hunka) with his armies. Photograph: Andrew Scott Beveridge

Dodon is convinced that foreign invaders amass at his borders, and loses sleep plotting pre-emptive action. He is visited by a bearded, loftily-voiced Astrologer (Andrei Popov), who brings the perfect gift for a paranoid king who has it all: a golden cockerel that will warn him of danger. From its perch atop the dead tree that looms over the stage, the man-sized cockerel is a featherless, gold-smeared, Guillermo del Toro-worthy goblin-bird (Matthew Whittet). Its heraldic warning call, sung offstage by soprano Samantha Clarke, only serves to raise the tsar’s stress levels. Soon, the princes are sent off to war.

Completed shortly before his death, Rimsky-Korsakov’s final work arrived in the wake of the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905. Now, 113 years after its premiere in 1909, Kosky’s interpretation marks its first ever performance in Australia after premiering at France’s Festival d’Aix-en-Provence in 2021. As far as century-old commentaries on Russian autocracy and doomed foreign policy go, it could hardly have arrived at a more pointed moment, performed by a European and Australian cast that includes both Russian and Ukrainian performers. The tsar himself is played by British Ukrainian bass-baritone Pavlo Hunka, who this week has been vocal in his condemnation of that other Russian autocrat.

Adelaide Festival 2022: The Golden Cockerel, directed by Barrie Kosky
The Queen of Chemakha (Venera Gimadieva) and the cockerel (Matthew Whittet). Photograph: Andrew Scott Beveridge

But this fairytale, based on an 1834 poem by Alexander Pushkin, moves beyond surface-level geopolitical parallels. When Dodon ventures out to learn of his sons’ war efforts, he crosses paths with the Queen of Chemakha (Venera Gimadieva), a foreign tsaritsa with designs on his kingdom. She’s played like a seductive old Hollywood starlet, dress fringed with long sparkling tassels and backed by four dazzling male courtiers who dance and strut around her.

As Dodon grows besotted by her beguiling movements, the ageing patriarch channels his insecurity into the leering pursuit of the young and virginal. But the tsaritsa plays to his vanity, entitlement and desire, and soon he’s willing to do just about anything to win her – he begrudgingly sings for her, and even tries, humiliatingly, to learn to dance for her. It looks like the feared tsar might end up surrendering for love, rather than war.

Sign up to receive Guardian Australia’s weekend culture and lifestyle email

Ever since his fabled stint as Adelaide festival’s youngest-ever director back in 1996, Kosky’s name has been whispered around town with reverence and glee. Current festival co-directors Rachel Healy and Neil Armfield have wisely made him a key plank of their tenure, first with 2017’s Saul and then The Magic Flute in 2019.

‘Only for a few moments does [The Golden Cockerel] approach the kind of colourful, ensemble spectacle that seared Saul into audiences’ memories’
‘Only for a few moments does [The Golden Cockerel] approach the kind of colourful, ensemble spectacle that seared Saul into audiences’ memories.’ Photograph: Andrew Scott Beveridge

The Golden Cockerel is a different beast, and only for a few moments does it approach the kind of colourful, ensemble spectacle that seared Saul into audiences’ memories. (It does, however, share its appreciation for a good decapitated prop head). But this is a funny, pathos-laden production, full of weirdly satisfying surprises. Rimsky-Korsakov’s final score is a dizzying parting gift to the vocalists of the world, but the principal cast are in fine form with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra underneath them.

After the initial bombast of all the king’s horses and his douchebag sons, it’s Gimadieva and Hunka’s strange courtship that gives The Golden Cockerel its hypnotic energy, as we watch the tsar and tsaritsa pit youth, beauty and ambition against age and hubris. And like any good fable, the cockerel inevitably comes home to roost – and Kosky doesn’t disappoint.


Walter Marsh

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
A Little Life: four-hour adaptation of divisive queer novel heading to Adelaide festival
Ivo van Hove’s play will make its Australian debut in Adelaide in 2023, and be performed in Dutch with subtitles

Kelly Burke

09, Nov, 2022 @4:07 AM

Article image
Adelaide festival launches 2022 program with a free open-air spectacular and international acts
Rock music legends Icehouse and an African chamber ensemble are among the acts featuring at Australia’s premier arts festival

Kelly Burke

26, Oct, 2021 @12:59 AM

Article image
Adelaide festival 2017 program: Cate Blanchett and Shakespeare get dark, weird and surreal
Program spanning opera, film, dance, music, performance art and theatre to feature Rufus Wainwright’s ‘symphonic visual concert’ and Neil Armfield’s outdoor production of The Secret River

Steph Harmon

27, Oct, 2016 @2:47 AM

Article image
Risks, refunds and cancellations: your guide to buying tickets amid Covid this summer
From Sydney, Perth and Adelaide festivals to major shows, tickets make great last-minute gifts. But they could also be a roll of the dice

Elissa Blake

22, Dec, 2021 @2:14 AM

Article image
The James Plays Trilogy review – high-stakes historical soap proves addictive
Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre
A trio of stories from Scottish royalty blend historical power struggles with contemporary dialogue

Jane Howard

01, Mar, 2016 @2:44 AM

Article image
La Merda review – a swelling scream of self-love and self-loathing
Silvia Gallerano is utterly compelling in this one hour stream of consciousness about a woman who unapologetically takes up space in the world, writes Jane Howard

Jane Howard

07, Mar, 2015 @5:12 AM

Article image
Phantom of the Opera review – a grittier revamp of the timeless phenomenon is still a one-in-a-million treat
While a more sophisticated take on the classic set slightly dampens the spectacle of old theatre magic, it’s the music truly brings the thrills

Cassie Tongue

27, Aug, 2022 @3:35 AM

Article image
Watershed: The Death of Dr Duncan review – powerful scenes of heartbreak and tenderness
Fifty years after the killing of an Adelaide academic inspired historic reform, a new oratorio co-written by Christos Tsiolkas offers an elegiac reckoning

Walter Marsh

04, Mar, 2022 @2:41 AM

Article image
Saul review – Barrie Kosky slays giant expectations in triumphant return to Adelaide
Modern operatic take on the near-300-year-old dramatic oratorio promises to sear itself upon the imaginations of audiences

Max Opray

04, Mar, 2017 @1:51 AM

Article image
The Who’s Tommy review – rock musical makes no sense, but the tunes are superb
What was once a radical, satirical tale has been sanitised over the years by Pete Townshend, but this staging features some magnificent performances

Tim Byrne

23, Feb, 2022 @1:52 AM