Pros: A great, comic spectacle expertly performed.
Cons: An acquired taste – probably more for a seasoned opera and ballet enthusiast, or someone who wants to enjoy the authentic experience of the London Coliseum.
During the recently staged Sochi Winter Olympics international audiences were given a taste of the work of Russia’s icons in literature, music, art, opera and ballet during the opening and closing ceremonies. Following this, supported by funding from the Russian Ministry of Culture celebrating the UK-Russia year of culture 2014, the London Coliseum are hosting the Diaghilev Festival. The festival celebrates the work of two Russian cultural icons Sergei Diaghilev and Nikolai Rimsky Korsakov. It’s a collection of ballets performed by the Moscow State Music Theatre for Young Audience and artistically directed by People’s artist of Russia, Andris Liepa.
Le Coq’Dor (The Golden Cockerel) by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov is based on a fairy-tale by the father of Russian literature, Alexander Pushkin. Sergei Diaghilev oversaw the world production of the piece back in 1914. At the time Diaghilev collaborated with artistic innovators who wanted to merge opera with ballet, using pantomime choreography to demonstrate the sung story on stage. This approach to performance was groundbreaking among Diaghilev’s contemporaries. To celebrate this bold innovation one hundred years on, the festival has revived the show using archival evidence to present a production that looks and feels much the same as it would have in 1914.
The tale is simple and predictable enough to follow: the story of an aged warrior Tsar who wishes for peace in his kingdom for the rest of his days. He consults a sorcerer who provides him with a magical Golden Cockerel to warn him of trouble. In return the sorcerer asks that when the time comes the Tsar grant him whatever he wishes for. The Tsar then meets a beautiful princess and predictable disaster ensues. The fairytale warns of the fatal consequences of human passion and weakness in a comical way: the King is a rotund, feckless absurd character and a lot of the other characterisation takes it lead from this. The music is sung in Russian by live performers who stand on the sidelines and is supported by English surtitles.
The London Coliseum has tremendous majesty. Though a fairly small theatre by modern standards its interior is just beautiful. Thus sitting in it is a privilege; giving a weighty sense of its grand past. The same could be said for witnessing this revived piece. It’s a bit clunky, the story is a bit nonsensical, and obviously and purposefully (as it’s copying the 1914 production) the staging, choreography and costume design are dated. But it’s lovingly and expertly performed. The ballet compliments the opera perfectly. The revival of the hundred-year-old design is an intriguing part of the spectacle; at one point a very simplistic, 2D wooden steed is wheeled onto stage for the Tsar to perch on as he rides out of the kingdom.
I suppose a caveat is that the entire thing is probably a bit of an acquired taste. I’m no expert, I’ve not seen a great amount of professional opera or ballet but it’s probably more for the connoisseur who can appreciate the charms of such a revival. After all it’s celebrating the innovation of 100 years and not necessarily embracing 21st century theatre. Conversely, given that the company are aimed at young audiences, it could be a great introduction to the awesome clash of eastern and western culture, which Russia’s history boasts, for those who want to learn more about it.
Libretto: Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
Author: Alexander Pushkin
Musical Director and Conductor: Alevtina Ioffe
Director: Georgiy Isaakyan
Conductor: Oleg Beluntsov
Set designer: Vyacheslav Okunev
Choreographer: Gali Abaidulov
Performed by: Moscow State Music Theatre for Young Audience
Producer: Part of Les Saisons Russes du XXI siècle
Booking until: 10 July 2014
Box Link: http://www.eno.org/whats-on/other/diaghilev