When choosing what `Christmassy' piece to put on, theatre managements do not, as a rule—a rule which applies in Opera houses as elsewhere—ask themselves what the aesthetic nobs and snobs are going to think. The idea is to pull in family parties and encourage, nay provoke giggles. Hence the Covent Garden revival of Rimsky-Korsa- kov's The Golden Cockerel.
The present production (Robert Help- mann's, with sets and dresses by Loudon Sainthill) came out first in 1954, but the Cockerel, a hibernating bird if ever there was one, has been popping up and down on English lyric stages for much longer than that. When the Beechams first put it on at Drury Lane on the eve of the Kaiser's War, it was saluted by Charles Ricketts as 'an outstanding revelation of the highest art . . . almost uncanny in invention . . . and of the utmost significance as a depart- ure which may open a new life of art or hasten the decadence of that which exists.' This was no send-up. It was an impassioned encomium. Any opera which survives an encomium of this sort must be durable to the point of deathlessness.
In the 1920s, the British National Opera Company used to do the Cockerel in English, always entertainingly. Much was made in those days of the libretto (after Pushkin); it was cried up influentially as anti- monarchical satire of a peculiarly subtle and biting kind. For this reason, a wholly wrongheaded one, people flocked to the Cockerel who had never seen the inside of an opera house before, among them trade union zealots, Socialist aldermen and Kropotkinite vegetarians. They came away disillusioned, glum and embittered. No en- tertainment in the world makes people as purple and angry as opera when they sit through it and don't see the point. Nowadays we pay little attention to Bielsky's story and words. There is, how. ever, a certain amount of new knocking on musical counts. It is true that, especially in the first act, Rimsky overworks his hand ful of leading tunes which, shapely or pretty enough in themselves, begin to ossify fo, want of a more fluid or fluent handling. Still. there is a lot to enjoy—and to go on en joying. There are touches, even, of what is fashionably called magic. Such, on tht Covent Garden first night (when Charles Mackerras conducted with a sort of hyper cautious devotion), were the recurring flights of upper-woodwind triplets during the sci.n, where King Dodon plays with his pet par. rot. The symbol here is of the parrot's chatter and in what other context have flutes ever sounded so enchantingly raucous? What an inventive and. for his day, audacious ear the old boy had!
Then Act 2. As night mists lifted and a regal pavilion mysteriously rose from no- where on the hillside. I heard again long remembered dissonances for lower strings (they have a drugged sound) and, high above, uplicking frailties for clarinet, flute. harp, celesta. Nothing was lost. There had been no tarnishing. I was entranced; sat open-mouthed as in boyhood.
To say that Act 2 dies hard would be untrue. It gives no sign of dying at all. A lot depends, of course, upon who's sing- ing and acting and dancing Queen Shemak- ban. At Covent Garden. thanks to Patricia Brooks, an American soprano who is mak- ing her debut there, we arc in luck's way, all things (and several precedents) con- sidered. The tessitura of the part is tough. After the Hymn to the Sun, King Dodon used to sing, in Edward Agate's transla- tion: 'Execution superhuman!! She is fair and full of wit./ Let us join her for a bit' (The humours of translated Bielsky are in a class of their own. In the new transla- tion, by Antal Dorati and James Gibson. Noel Mangin, an agreeably bluff. eye• popping Dodon, asks one of his servitors: `Can't you sing it more bel canto? This is opera, not a panto.') I wouldn't say that Miss Brooks's execution was superhuman in Dodon's or anybody's sense, because the Hymn isn't the big test. What I will say is that in this number her voice was pure, her phrases well 'placed' and every note exactly pitched.
In her later ariosos, which are technic- ally more demanding (as well as more languorously seductive: a surprising achieve- ment for Rimsky, who has always struck me as a dry old stick), she managed tortuous chromatic divisions with address and opted for a cadential phrase starting on top D. which is a minor third higher than the permitted alternative and enough to frighten a metal nightingale to death. The Queen's last note in this scene is top E and more frightening still. Miss Brooks aimed at this but didn't get it. But she moved with unc- tion and glitter and once or twice switched with sudden and startling effect from gleam- ing sweetness to malignity. Another on the tessitura tightwire was the remarkable Ken- neth Macdonald (Astrologer), who did better than Miss Brooks with his optional high E (by which I mean that he indubit• ably got it and stuck to it). For the most part, if not invariably, he put volume and quality into phrases which, if you or I had a go at them, would leave us with perma- nent lesions of the larynx.
And the `Christmassy. note? Well, there were many gigglings and chucklings at the libretto jokes and topicalities; at King Dodon's dodderings and his infatuation with Shemakhan; at the tuneful homeliness of Dodon's housekeeper (Elizabeth Bain- bridge); at the inanities of John Lanigan and Hugh Sheehan as Dodon's sons; and at the fiascoid performance of Dodon's artillery. I am not myself overboard about the Sainthill-Helpmann spectacle but suspect that on this point I am in a very small minority. What did the family parties make of the opera's sinister undertones and con- undrums? Just who or what are Shemak- han and the Astrologer? What their ante- cedents, purpose, motivation? On these points I've always been vague. But vague- ness doesn't prevent me—and I hope it won't prevent them—going back for more.