The American Ballet Theatre’s season at the Metropolitan Opera House has included The Golden Cockerel. What is it? I will be as brief as possible. I will also be incomplete, but you’ll get the point, regardless.
Primarily, The Golden Cockerel is an opera by Rimsky-Korsakov. It is known by many, throughout the world, as Le Coq d’or. This was the last of the composer’s fifteen operas, finished in 1907, a year before he died. Fokine, the great choreographer, made something else of it: a ballet, but with singing. Now another great choreographer, Alexei Ratmansky, has come along with another ballet, inspired by Fokine’s. Yannis Samprovalakis has arranged Rimsky-Korsakov’s music. There is no singing, just playing.
It is the Ratmansky Cockerel, if you will, that ABT has presented.
Rimsky-Korsakov got his story from Pushkin, who got it from Washington Irving (yes). It is about an astrologer, a czar, a bird, a beautiful queen—it is, in short, a fairy tale, but a fairy tale with bite, or peck, as the cockerel pecks the czar to death, at least in this new ballet.
How about Rimsky-Korsakov’s music? It is, in a word, Scheherazade-y. It is woozily chromatic. It is a festival of Orientalism.
The opera had a hit aria, the “Hymn to the Sun,” which became a hit piece of music, for everybody. For instance, Kreisler played it. So did Heifetz.
At the Metropolitan Opera, Fokine’s Cockerel was paired with Leoncavallo’s shortie, Cavalleria rusticana. (No word on whether Pagliacci’s feelings were hurt.) In 1918, Pierre Monteux conducted the Met premiere. City Opera staged the opera—the opera proper—in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Three guesses who the soprano was.
Would you like to hear, and see, Beverly Sills in the “Hymn to the Sun”? Go here.
Rimsky-Korsakov may have written fifteen operas, but they have not had much play at the Met, at all. In 1922, the company did The Snow Maiden, with Lucrezia Bori in the title role. (This Italian soprano is not to be confused with Lucrezia Borgia, who is an opera by Donizetti.) In 1930, the company did Sadko, with Edward Johnson in the title role. This Canadian tenor would soon be the general manager of the Met.
Music is like hemlines, and Rimsky-Korsakov may have his day. It’s hard to imagine now, however.
But he had a moment with ABT and The Golden Cockerel. This ballet, first and foremost, was a treat to look at. A feast of color, if you will pardon the cliché. The scenery and costumes were by Richard Hudson, the whiz from southern Africa who did The Lion King. He was inspired, for The Golden Cockerel, by Natalia Goncharova, the Russian artist who lived from 1881 to 1962. I suppose you could say that, as Fokine was to Ratmansky, Goncharova was to Hudson.
The night I attended, there was much admirable dancing, including from the Golden Cockerel, who, though he is of course a boy, is danced by a girl: in this case, Cassandra Trenary, from Georgia (as in Gone with the Wind, not Stalin). She brought to the part what I can only call a herky-jerky elegance. Think of Olympia, the mechanical doll from The Tales of Hoffmann, infused with ballerina refinement.
All in all, this was a praiseworthy evening. What was wrong with it? Anything? Let me quote Liszt: “The cardinal sin of performance is dullness.” This evening was a touch boring. Why?
It could have to do with the uses of Rimsky-Korsakov’s music, which took on some monotony. It could have to do with pantomime, which is extensive in this ballet, and not to everyone’s taste. Regardless, the Ratmansky Cockerel was something to see—is something to see—and each attendee can decide for himself.
Let me close this post with a couple of family notes. In the ballet, the czar has a housekeeper, who was portrayed by a retired ballerina: Tatiana Ratmansky, the wife of the choreographer. Her boss, the czar, was portrayed by another retired dancer, Victor Barbee. His wife is Julie Kent, the ballerina who retired only last year.
At the beginning of the evening, she was talking to some people on one side of a section, in the first rows of the orchestra. (The first rows of the orchestra level of the auditorium, I should say.) Her seat was evidently on the other side—because when the lights dimmed, she hurried across to that other side, head down. It took her no time at all. She floated at the speed of light. It was as though she was transported by something supernatural.
In other words, it was Julie Kent …