Tuesday 8 February 2022

Razor sharp satire and full-blooded passion: English Touring Opera's Spring Tour

Ivan Bilibin's 1909 stage set design for Act 2 of Rimsky-Korsakov's The Golden Cockerel
Ivan Bilibin's 1909 stage set design for Act 2 of Rimsky-Korsakov's The Golden Cockerel

Rimsky Korsakov's operas tended towards the large-scale, with subject matter inspired by Russian folklore. He regarded The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya (which premiered in 1907) as his final opera, a summation of his art and it has been compared to Wagner's Parsifal. But the political situation in Russia with the disastrous Russo-Japanese war, led Rimsky-Korsakov to complete one last opera. This was rather different to his earlier operas, this is a compact piece and a "razor-sharp satire of the autocracy, of Russian imperialism, and of the Russo-Japanese war".

Based on a poem by Alexander Pushkin, the work debuted in 1909, after the composer's death. There were some censorship problems with the work, and it became known in the West when Diaghilev's Ballets Russes staged it (performing it as an opera ballet). 

I first came across it in the late 1970s when David Pountney's delightful production was a staple at Scottish Opera. So much so, that it was something of a surprise to realise that it was actually a relatively rare work. The Royal Opera staged it in 1998 at Sadler's Wells, Theatre in a rather grim production by Tim Hopkins, but I am not sure whether the piece has been done much in London since.

One of the work's challenges is its casting, whilst the Queen of Shemakha's aria is often in coloratura soprano's repertoires, the opera also has a spectacularly high tenor part for the Astrologer (Scottish Opera experimented with both tenors and counter-tenors in this role).

Now we are going to get a chance to see it again, as English Touring Opera's Spring tour features a new production of Rimsky Korsakov's The Golden Cockerel directed by James Conway (who steps down as artistic director this year) and conducted by the company's music director, Jerry Cornelius with a cast including Paula Sides, and Grant Doyle. Alongside this, the company will be touring a revival of James Conway's 2015 production of Puccini's La Boheme conducted by Dionysis Grammenos with Francesca Chiejina / Paula Sides, Luciano Botelho / Thomas Elwin, Jenny Stafford / April Koyejo-Audiger, and Michel de Souza / Jerome Knox.

The company will also be touring its staging of Bach's St John Passion with professional soloists and the Old Street Band, conductor Jonathan Peter Kenny, with contributions from 30 regional choirs.

The tour opens at the Hackney Empire on 26 February 2022, and continues until 3 June 2022, full details from the English Touring Opera website.  A tour which features 21 performances of La Boheme, and performances of The Golden Cockerel in 13 venues across the country.

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