The Golden Cockerel
Adelaide Festival
Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre, Tarntanya (Adelaide)
Friday, 4 March 2022
A brilliant and surreal look at the madness of power

When the 2022 Adelaide Festival program was announced back in November last year, little did anyone anticipate that it would be held against the backdrop of a Russian autocrat waging war in Europe.

The centrepiece of the 2022 festival, this brilliant and surreal Adelaide Festival/Festival dÁix-en-Provence co-production has become a timely reminder of the folly of war.

Russian composer Rimsky-Korsakov composed his “pretty fairy tale” in 1906-07 against an increasingly difficult political situation in Tsarist Russia including the 1905 Revolution and the Russo-Japanese war. Using Alexander Pushkin’s 1835 tale of the same name as inspiration, Rimsky-Korsakov’s satirical morality fable was clearly aimed at Tsar Nicholas II. It is therefore no surprise that the piece initially fell foul of the Russian censors, not to be performed until October 1909 , a year after the composer’s death.

While rarely performed since, it is nevertheless a surprise that over a century later Adelaide finally plays host to the Australian premiere of the work.

This is a wildly imaginative and seductive production, directed by the indomitable Barry Kosky.

We open to the stripped back and breathtakingly simple set by Rufus Didwiszus with British-Ukrainian baritone Pavlo Hunka as Tsar Dodon, lamenting for glories past. Now a foolish old man he listens to the counsel of his even more witless sons Aphron (Samuel Dundas) and Gvidon (Nicholas Jones), ignoring the sensible advice coming from his best general Polkan, sung by Mischa Schelomianski, dressed as a horse. Mention must go here to the clever and imaginative costumes by Victoria Behr that emphasise Rimsky-Korsakov’s satirical themes.

In the end it is up to a glittering guardian, the golden cockerel (Matthew Whittet onstage and sung offstage by Samantha Clarke), a gift from the astrologer (Andrei Popov) to protect the land. A recipe for disaster as he is seduced by the gorgeous and seductive Queen of Chemakha (Venera Gimadieva).

The star of the show is Rimsky-Korsakov’s music, its magic brilliantly captured by Estonian conductor Argo Volmer with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. It is a richly melodic and kaleidoscopic soundscape that transports you, while at the same time reflecting a sexiness to it particularly during the seduction scene between the Queen of Chemakha and Tsar Dodon.

In fact it is this scene where Dodon, mocked and humiliated by Queen Chemakha, making him essentially impotent, that brings in parallels with King Lear.

In the end we are told that this is but a fairy tale and that only the astrologer and the Queen are real – but are they? Who is dreaming? Is this a dream within a dream? The first casualty of war is truth and the same could be said for politics, even back in 1905 Rimsky-Korsakov was questioning the official line.

With the nightmare unfolding in Ukraine, it is impossible to watch this production of The Golden Cockerel without thinking about the impact of Russia’s invasion and what it could potentially mean for us all and which only heightens the response to this stunning and emotional work. This is a richly textured feast of music, staging and movement.

Fontella Koleff