Russian folklore and literature is incredibly rich in colorful tales of supernatural magic with decidedly down to earth morals. And the fairy tale of the “Golden Cockerel,” written by the great Alexander Pushkin in 1834 is no exception. For Rimsky-Korsakov, who had basically retired from active composition, it provided the perfect inspiration to caricature the precarious political situation in Russia. In the end, he composed an opera in three acts with a short prologue and even shorter prologue that has been called a “razor-sharp satire on the autocracy of Russian imperialism.” A mysterious Astrologer appears before the curtain in the prologue and announces to the audience that they are going to see and hear a fictional tale from long ago. It is the story of the inept Tsar Dodon—an aptly chosen name—who believes that his country is in danger from a neighboring country ruled by a beautiful Tsaritsa. The Astrologer presents him with a magic Golden Cockerel, who is able to see into the future. When the cockerel confirms that the Tsaritsa does intend to take over his country, Dodon launches a pre-emptive strike by sending his two sons and his army into battle.
New York Opera Festival 2017: Golden Cockerel
His bumbling sons manage to kill each other on the battlefield, and Tsar Dodon is taking charge of the army. However, the Golden Cockerel makes sure that the Tsar falls hopelessly in love with the beautiful Tsaritsa as soon as he lays eyes on her. The Tsaritsa plays along and performs a seductive dance, inviting the Tsar to consummate the relationship but he is just too clumsy. She now realizes that she can take over Dodon’s territory without fighting, and engineers a marriage proposal from Dodon. With the wedding festivities in full swing, the Astrologer reappears and reminds the Tsar that he has granted him a wish. But when the Astrologer demands the Tsaritsa, Dodon kills him with a vicious blow. Loyal to his master, the Golden Cockerel pecks through the Tsar’s jugular; the sky darkens and when the light returns, the Tsaritsa and the cockerel are gone. In the epilogue, the Astrologer again comes before the curtain reminding the audience that everything they saw was an illusion. The work premiered on 7 October 1909 with set designs by Ivan Bilibin. Regrettably, Rimsky-Korsakov was not able to see his opera on stage, as he had died at his Lyubensk estate on 21 June 1908.