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"The Golden Cockerel": Opera Before its Time or Right on Time

By Don Fineberg


“The Golden Cockerel”: Opera Before its Time or Right on Time

The poet philosopher George Santayana (1863-1952) famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Whoa … there’s a great example of that for you, this summer, at  Santa Fe Opera. Check out Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel. With a truth that resonates for us as it did for the Russian Tsar Nikolas II. Ironically, the opera begins and ends with the disclaimer that the story is a mere fiction. Yet, this fantasy opera so unsettled the tsar, he banned it from the Imperial theaters. Opera reflects core personal and cultural issues. Opera comments on society. And, The Golden Cockerel  does it particularly well.

Among the 2017 SFO productions The Golden Cockerel holds a special place.

Rimsky-Korsakov has a relationship to our opera’s history. Known mostly for his lush tone poems, like Scheherazade, his prolific composing also included opera. He was adept at giving individual instruments their own voice that appeals to our ear today. He was also adept in guiding his students in developing their musical voices.

One such student was Igor Stravinsky. His bust sits on the stage left plaza that bears his name. Stravinsky, invited to SFO’s inaugural season in 1957 by founder John Crosby, frequently returned until 1963. Stravinsky helped to put our opera company on the map of serious venues and he contributed significantly to the campaign to build a new opera house when the original one burned down. With the production of The Golden Cockerel, Santa Fe brings the creative circle back to its roots – from Rimsky to Stravinsky and back.

Now back to our opera. The Russian poem The Tale of the Golden Cockerel by Alexander Pushkin inspired Rimsky-Korsakov. He transformed the story into music. He states in his composer notes, “An opera is first and foremost a musical work.” His work is unmistakably Russian. He infuses the opera with native folk tunes and instrumentation, flavoring the leitmotif of the Sorcerer’s theme, the martial parade and the choral send-offs by the peasants and slave girls. The opera’s setting may be mythical, but land is undeniably Russia!

Little wonder that the ironic story and the music put a bug in the tsar’s ear. The Golden Cockerel tells its tale in contrasting words and action. The music of the sorcerer’s theme engages us at the opera’s beginning, climax and end; yet, he tells us to ignore the story as a mere fairytale or nonsense. The Tsar Dodon’s sons offer up a ludicrous plan to keep the Empire safe. Yet, Rimsky has given them bold music. The Tsaritsa’s slave girls sing a royal send off to the Tsar and their queen, but the lyrics set to this regal melody tell a different story and ridicule the old, uncouth Tsar. In a word, things are not as they seem.

What is your role in the face of all of this irony? Want a hint? That’s just it, I gave it you already, you have a role, you, yes you, are a part of the story. To find out how let’s return to the story and how that foolish bully of a Tsar reacts. The opera makes it abundantly clear – not well! Projecting his hostility onto his neighbors—displacing his own feelings on the “other”—he sends his sons to invade the land of Shemakha in a preemptive strike. This type of projection frequently occurs, according to Erik Erikson, in times of personal or political crisis. Both are “true” for the aging Tsar Dodon.

The opera anticipates Erikson’s observation by half a century and the notion of this type of projection goes back centuries. Even the bible warns against it. The Prophet Samuel speaks of people “defaming others with their own blemishes.” Closer to home Freud might say it helps us relieve our anxiety about our unacceptable attributes. Jung might call it our shadow, the archetype of the repressed parts of our personality.  Too much theory? Then just look around. We all do it to some extent or another.

Prove it? Okay, frequently we project onto people who have some flaw similar to the ones we want nothing to do with. Tsar Dodon has made trouble with his neighbors in the past. They have a genuine grudge, whether or not they plan to counter-attack. The Tsar can readily project his own aggression onto them because they have a legitimate reason to be hostile. They make excellent targets for his projections.

His troubles only get worse. Turns out that old Tsar Dodon is as lecherous as he is aggressive. He imagines the Queen of Shemakha lusting for him—a ludicrous projection for sure! Opera ably portrays the mix of primitive sexual and aggressive instincts. We see it often, none more dramatic than Lucia’s murder of her bridegroom on their wedding night. That’s a different story. Once more, back to our opera.

In this opera’s first part, Tsar Dodon frets about wars with neighboring states, but erotically dreams of his future queen, their queen. In the second part, he finds his decimated army and dead sons. He is vengeful. Even though he started the war, he takes no responsibility for the debacle. He sees a tent in the distance. He is looking for an enemy and determines that this is it.  He fires his artillery. It proves impotent to destroy the structure. Later we learn the symbolic import of this tent and the uselessness of his artillery. But for the moment, we focus our interest on the woman who emerges from the tent unscathed it is the Queen of Shemakha. Here his aggressive and sexual instincts merge. Despite his age and weakness, he thinks he will win her over. Ultimately he even tries to dance and sing at the queen’s request. Personifying the adage: “There is no fool like an old fool.”

So, how might we understand this projection? The key lies in the attribute of the person doing the projecting. Tsar Nicholas II held Japan in contempt. He had a false sense of security and superiority. His own inflated sense of himself seduced the Tsar. Russia’s disastrous defeat followed.

Here’s a second hint for your role: The tsar is not the only one reacting. Now, back to this opera!

An aging, vulnerable Tsar Dodon faces a lone foreign queen without an army. He projects his weakness onto the Queen. He believes he is conquering her, while of course, the opposite will prove true. Nikolas’s wife, Alexandra, was also a foreign queen. The obvious parallel annoys the Tsar Nikolas. It makes Tsar Dodon’s lascivious longing all the more inappropriate in the Tsar Nikolas’s eyes, especially since The Tsaritsa turns out to be so very alluring to Dodon.

The sexy target of Dodon’s lust pre-qualifies herself for his projection. We know his sons, the princes, stabbed each other competing for her affections. Their passion cost them their lives. When we meet her, she disrobes one layer at a time from grand royal garb to an outfit comprised of hardly anything at all. She then offers her lush aria, (Dodon exclaims, “What a song! Amazing!”) She continues with an erotic sequence of self-description:

I’d like to know for sure…is the Queen’s perfection abundantly clear? Or have I been told tall tales? They say my eyes dazzle more than lightning itself……and that there is no greater joy than the Queen’s mouth? …

You only know me in these fine clothes. I don’t look so bad without them. Before I lie down to sleep…I look at myself in the mirror, I cast off these prim rags and sit radiant in the tent like sunlight beaming on a silver idol. I look myself over: no birthmarks, not even a speck of dust. I undo the braid from my hair. It cascades like a black waterfall onto the pliant marble of my thighs.

To refresh and invigorate my sleep I sprinkle myself with dew. The drops splash over my breasts like wet flames. But what breasts I have, jostling each other like budding roses magnificent, luxurious and mighty. They are white, light and transparent.

This tsaritsa captivates us in the audience as well. It’s worth knowing in advance what she is singing.  Enjoy her without needing a translation. With or without the exact words, the meaning is clear.

Note: In Russian culture, the “undoing of braids” symbolizes the shedding of virginity. As if it were not obvious enough, the Queen offers the besotted Tsar her first marital bed. She entices him further. Tsar Dodon becomes woozy. She turns up the heat:

I’ll sing for you. Listen to my song:

“Oh, youth will soon fade, and happiness will disappear. Mortal, seize every moment. Give every hour to love.”

Don’t you like such songs? Here’s another:

“Dark and cramped, dark and cramped is my patterned tent. Soft and warm, warm and soft is the rug inside it.”

Old man, do you want to see what’s inside my tent?

Not surprisingly, when the imperial theaters of the Tsar Nicholas II banned this opera as “inappropriate”, for both political and sexual reasons.

The remainder of the opera unfolds quickly. The tsar brings the queen home, to rule by his side. The sorcerer who provided the golden cockerel asks for his payment of “anything” he desires. He asks for the queen. The enraged tsar strikes him dead and the cockerel attacks the tsar and kills him. The queen disappears. The people mourn.

She reappears with the Sorcerer in modern clothing. He reiterates that the entire story “is nonsense, a dream, a pale specter, emptiness.” And curiously includes, “only the queen and I were real, living beings.” The opera ends.

Our curiosity continues. We understand this opera purports to show a fairytale presented by a sorcerer, but why is the Queen a “real, living being”? She could easily have been his conjuring as well. Without any more hints, have you guessed your role in the opera? It’s our collective, reactive experience.

Examine a little more closely how you feel about her performance. After all, she is a “real” human being. Are you amused, abashed, aroused, disgusted, dismissive, or purport to be merely mildly entertained? Your experience informs you. It is a window into your inner world. How and when do we project this inner world?

Let’s not forget the foolish Dodon, with his stupidity, grandiosity, self-centeredness and aggression. People like this get under our skin. We dislike their traits, especially when we see hints of them in ourselves. Thanks to the opera, we easily recognize them. Perhaps, even more importantly, when we catch a glimpse of them in ourselves, we recognize our human tendency to project them on to “others.”

Isn’t Tsar Dodon the perfect “other”? Clearly, after the disastrous war with Japan, Tsar Nicholas II felt the power of these projections to be too closely aimed at him. He took it personally. But, the story of the opera from Pushkin’s poem predates the Tsar’s war by decades. The opera – The Golden Cockerel – offers a far more timeless message:  when we are completely honest with ourselves, perhaps we can admit our projection of a little “Dodon” that lives in all of us.