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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Opera Review: The Day-Glo Ultraviolet Alert System

New Opera NYC hatches The Golden Cockerel.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Tsar wars: Mikhail Svetlov as King Dodon in  The Golden Cockerel.
Photo courtesy New Opera NYC.

In New York City it is a rare pleasure to hear Russian opera that isn't by Tchaikovsky or Mussorgsky. So it was a treat to learn that the plucky New Opera NYC, founded three years ago by director Igor Konyukhov chose to mount The Golden Cockerel, the final stage work by composer Nokolai Rimsky-Korsakov as part of the ongoing New York Opera Festival. Friday night’s show was the second of five at the Sheen Center, a converted vaudeville house on Bleecker Street that works perfectly well for opera on a modest scale.

Written in 1907 but shelved until a year after the composer’s death, Cockerel (also known in the West by its French title Le Coq d'Or) is Rimsky-Korsakov’s best known opera outside Russia. It is a searing Pushkin satire wrapped in the velvet glove of a fairy tale. Briefly, a foolish Tsar and his two idiot sons are given the titular bird that will crow when their kingdom is in danger. However, they are infatuated and conquered by a foreign Queen. Finally, the bird pecks the Tsar, killing him and ending his reign. Pushkin’s story was written as a criticism of Russia’s ill-fated war with Japan, but it resonates well in today's toxic political climate.

The production by Mr. Konyukhov (with stage design by Zachary Crane) staged this fantastic story as an exercise in 21st century whimsy. Bright Day-Glo colors were the rule for both costumes and sets, to overwhelming effect. The action took place against a Jackson Pollock-like backdrop done in primary colors, and the whole had the feel of a child’s nursery come to vivid life. Scant furniture was substantiated with colorfully adorned  inflated exercise balls, and the scenes in Dodon’s city were supplanted by a banquet table including a giant foam rubber pig’s head. Other oddities a were abundant throughout.

Tsar Dodon was played by bass Mikhail Svetlov, whose comic chops, resonant instrument and magnetic stage presence made a meal of the ridiculous Dodon. He captured the pomposity of the part through his bad dancing and the unlikely scene where he woos the Queen, which played like some strange cross between Parsifal and (Rossini's) Armida. Another bass, Gennady Visotsky proved an able foil as General Polkan, whose prudent, reasonable military advice was perpetually ignored by his boss.

The stunning soprano Julia Lima brought fresh energy to the show with her entrance in Act II as the Queen of Shemakhan. She was a vision in blacklight with glowing makeup and a minimal, glittering dress that had its own train of LEDs. She sang the upper reaches of this very high soprano part with no fear and general accuracy, though a few high notes went sharp. Still, it was an impressive turn, helped by her dancer’s body and raw predatory sex appeal, all conveyed through an elaborate mask.

Dimitry Gishpling-Chernov was less successful as the Astrologer, a doddering sage who gives the Cockerel to the Tsar. Part of the problem with this piece is that this crucial role is written for a tenore altino, a high and rare vocal range that can leap upward into the starry registers usually reserved for countertenors. The elaborately bewigged anecdotal bearded singer  had no command of his passagio, switching abruptly (and sometimes awkwardly) between the two voices when his upper register was needed.

The two Princes (whose duties are confined chiefly to offering knuckleheaded strategies for defense of Dodon’s realm) were played by Antonio Watts and Daniel Kalmic. They were notable not only for comic performances but for moving and acting in high heeled boots usually reserved for drag queens and dominatrixes. Equally elaborate was soprano Bonnie Frauental, whose high soprano and huge, golden crest of feathers and glitter made a tremendous impression in the title role.

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