Poshlost: a virtually untranslatable and highly uncomplimentary Russian noun signifying banality, vulgarity, triviality, stupidity and, well—you know. Like 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. It’s the sort of thing that Rimsky-Korsakov and his librettist, Vladimir Belsky, were sending up, only more so, in their strange and wonderful 1907 opera, The Golden Cockerel.
Part edgy fairy tale, part satiric attack on Tsar Nicholas II and his awful political misadventures, part proto-surrealist depiction of a world gone wrong, Cockerel can be by turns savage, outrageous, absurd and hilarious. Think SNL on steroids. Or stop thinking, please, and just let Rimsky’s glorious melodic score carry you away.
Which it surely does in the Santa Fe Opera’s delirious, delicious new production of Rimsky’s final opera. Oliver Prezant, pre-performance lecturer par excellence, calls much of the score “slippery,” especially where it bears upon the exotic Eastern tonalities describing the world of the Queen of Shemakha. She’s the femme fatale who seduces infantile, idiotic Dodon, Tsar of all the Russias, into sacrificing his kingdom and his life—a fatal attraction with its “bloody outcome” as described by the mysterious Astrologer in the opera’s epilogue.
Leading the SFO’s exemplary band, Emmanuel Villaume coaxes every sinuous thread from that slippery score. Rimsky wrote the book (literally) on orchestration, so you’ll hear all those caressing woodwinds, boisterous brasses and silken strings familiar from the composer’s kaleidoscopic orchestral warhorse, "Scheherazade."
As that mad, bad and dangerous-to-know Queen of Shemakha, Russian soprano Venera Gimadieva owns the second act and in this production steals the finale as well. The well-known “Hymn to the Sun,” in her creamy, impeccably phrased reading, is the stuff that dreams are made of. Another voluptuous dream—her casting aside garment after filmy garment to tease the fatuous Tsar into paroxysms of adolescent lust—makes Salome look like Mother Teresa.
As that grotesque dodo,Tsar Dodon, baritone Tim Mix struts and mugs his ignoble way across the stage in fat-suited red long-johns, proving that this Emperor indeed lacks clothes. The role really demands a blacker, weightier bass, but Mix’s agility and comic instincts carry the day. Singing Polkan, supreme general of the feckless Tsarist armies, Kevin Burdette and his magnificent mustachios sustains his SFO command of the sublimely ridiculous.
Meredith Arwady, about the darkest, deepest contralto going these days, gobbles up the succulent part of Amelfa, Dodon’s bossy housekeeper. As the Astrologer, the show’s sort-of emcee and resident brujo, Barry Banks parades his stratospheric “tenor altino,” an uncanny vocal presence that raises the neck-hairs.
SFO’s apprentice program provides plummy character roles for Richard Smagur as dumb Prince Guidon and Jorge Espino as even dumber Prince Afron. Kasia Borowiec cock-a-doodles the off-stage Cockerel with focused finesse, and Susanne Sheston molds her singers into a convincing imitation of Russian choral style.
We all cherish Jim Henson’s invention of Big Bird. Now, out of director Paul Curran’s imagination, flaps the Biggest Bird—the Astrologer’s gift to Dodon, that eponymous cockerel that pecks the Tsar to death after Dodon has seemingly murdered its master. Curran creates a storybook kingdom of technicolor pageantry, packed with pertinent allusions galore.
His Dodon is a sharp take on Jarry’s Ubu Roi. The Queen’s va-va-voom entrance entourage, all glitter and ostrich feathers, seems straight out of Vegas. The Cockerel itself exists simply as a dynamic, brilliant projection, suggesting the insubstantiality of both Dodon’s world and the Astrologer’s gift. The savage satiric spirit of Gogol presides over all.
Scenic/costume designer Gary McCann’s gleaming skeletal set recalls the work of Constructivist artist Vladimir Tatlin, and those flamboyant costumes, photo representations of historic fabrics, pop the eye. Paul Hackenmueller does the lights; projection designer Driscoll Otto offers a complex palette of visuals, notably a mocking sequence of grotesque, distorted masks suggestive of James Ensor’s disturbing paintings.
Another of Curran’s bright ideas is, near the finale, to present Dodon in a bloated pin-stripe suit with red tie, accompanied by the Queen in a sleek white Milanese trouser ensemble. Not a particularly subtle allusion, perhaps, but—hey—we take our poshlost where we find it.