Aug. 19, 2017
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Paul Hoperdahl

Mr. Cantú Goes to the Opera

No king gets out alive in Santa Fe’s psychedelic performance of The Golden Cockerel

July 18, 2017, 5:00 pm

Editor's note: SFR staff writer Aaron Cantú is new to Santa Fe and new to opera, so we sent him up the hill to see what he thought. Y'know, like an everyman approach. For you John Stege fans out there, don't fret—Stege's review of The Golden Cockerel will be up on the site later this week.

Donald Trump recently met French President Emmanuel Macron, another global leader who’s expressed sympathy for monarchic behavior, on Bastille Day—and more than a handful of people noted the irony. Imagery depicting 45 as a petulant child-king is especially popular among a certain demographic of upper-middle-class-and-beyond liberal; take it a step further and you end up in Kathy Griffin decapitation territory, which evidently is still too much for polite society, and obviously went over the top for the Secret Service.

The Golden Cockerel at the Santa Fe Opera is a tale about a hedonic monarch whose love of affirmation brings about his doom, and director Paul Curran encourages readers to notice modern-day parallels: In the program, Curran discusses how the show was based on a 1834 poem by Alexander Pushkin who rebelled against Tsar Nicholas’ hard-line nationalist rule. It then was adapted into a 1907 production by another rebel, composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, just two years after Russians rushed into the streets against Nicholas II. It’s easy to feel like the theme has resonance today, if only because Americans enjoy stories where kings (and perceived kings) get what’s coming to them.

The short of it is that the Russian Tsar Dodon (played by Tim Mix), who’s stressed about ruling over his kingdom, is given an astrologer’s magic golden cockerel (voiced by Kasia Borowiec) that warns him of danger from invading enemies. “Your reign will recline” is the refrain with which the cockerel reassures the king. He takes the bird literally, lazily rolling around on his throne for a good part of the first act. When the cockerel warns him that enemies are at the gates, he sets out to greet them in battle, but can’t manage to avoid bumbling until he meets the beautiful Queen of Shemakha (his enemy, played by Venera Gimadieva). With a voice that gives you shivers, she quickly seduces Dodon.

Our special media parking pass brought us directly in front of the seating area. People drank Champagne and wine openly in the parking lot. Only at an event where a lot of wealthy white people are in attendance could you get away with doing something like that. I didn’t see a single cop handing out a citation for an open container as my friend and I filled our glasses to the brim and ate fruit soaked in vodka. Overlooking the hills of Tesuque during a hazy Saturday sunset, my first opera show felt like a safe space for the well-to-do. If anybody felt zealous about watching a century-old excoriation of authoritarianism, they weren’t showing it.  

The production itself was trippy. King Dodon looked like Santa Claus with a blue beard. His two idiot sons also had unique-hued hairs, as did his royal councilors, all of whom fall over themselves giving the king haphazard advice. Much of the set is dusted with gold—the cockerel was a digital display on screen material stretched over a structure that rose above the stage like a wave. I woke up the next morning still hearing the cockerel’s call in my ear; the program describes the call as going “Ki-ri-ki, ki-ri-ku-ku!” It was the most memorable and powerful part of the production, especially because the bird turns on the king.

The cockerel, which symbolizes the golden sun in Russian mythology, attacks Dodon after he condemns to death the astrologer who gifted it. We’re left wondering in the end, though, whether any of it really happened; was it actually all just a fantasy of the astrologer, who can read the stars better than the divine king? Rimsky-Korsakov’s riddle remains, but the twist may have been a way to soften the impact of the production so it could get past government censors of the time. (It didn’t. The regime of Nicholas II banned The Golden Cockerel, and Rimsky-Korsakov died before its debut in Moscow in 1909.)

Political expression is freer here and now, but the gilded audience for which this irreverent story is now performed makes you wonder if there’s another kind of censorship at play; the one that determines who has the inclination, plus the money and time to go see an opera.

The Golden Cockerel
8:30 pm Wednesday July 19 and Friday July 28;
8 pm Thursday Aug. 3, Wednesday Aug. 9
and Friday Aug. 18. $34-$268.
Santa Fe Opera, 301 Opera Drive, 986-5900


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