Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera “The Golden Cockerel”

Margarita Chizhmak

Magazine issue: 
#1 2012 (34)

“This poor opera by Rimsky-Korsakov has been through so many ordeals! It turned out that it was not easier for the cockerel to go through theatre censorship than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. It has lost so many feathers and so many colours...”1 That is how a contemporary in 1909 commented on the difficult staging of the opera “The Golden Cockerel” by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.

The scandalous events accompanying the opera’s production on the Imperial Stage were undoubtedly the result of the work’s caustic remarks regarding the Tsar’s power. The opera was based on the fairy tale of the same title by Alexander Pushkin, written in 1834 and representing a peculiar “satirical portrait” of the rule of Nicholas I. In the opera that would be his last work, Rimsky-Korsakov (18441908) intended to expand the fairy tale’s political accents even further.

The first drafts for “The Golden Cockerel” appeared in the composer’s notebooks in October 1906, and in August 1907 he had already completed its score, together with his friend the librettist Vladimir Belsky (18661946). They chose to give the work a subtitle, “Enactment of a Fanciful Story. An Artistic Sample of a Popular Print Russian Fairy Tale”. It is interesting to cite the titles of previous works by Rimsky-Korsakov: a spring fairy tale “The Snow Maiden”, a magic opera-ballet “Mlada”, and a true story-carol “Christmas Eve”. It might seem that the composer used to derive his inspiration exclusively from fantasies, fairy tales and myths.

However, in his last years, he filled his works with increasingly topical themes and criticized autocracy in an increasingly consistent way. Already in “The Tale of Tsar Saltan” (also written together with Belsky), we see a ridiculous and foolish Tsar, and later, in “Kashchey the Immortal”, a monarch is shown as an ominous character symbolizing a dark force, destructive to anybody full of life and striving for freedom. Understandably the production of that opera resulted in a political demonstration in 1905.

While working on “The Golden Cockerel”, Rimsky-Korsakov did not hide his desire to sting the monarchy even more painfully than Pushkin had done. In one of his letters to his pupil Maximilian Steinberg, he wrote: “I want to disgrace Tsar Dodon completely”.2

Following the composer’s instructions, Belsky, in his libretto, had boldly developed the political themes in Pushkin’s text*, making them more topical and thus emphasizing the work’s satirical tone. Having mastered the required literary style, Belsky expanded certain episodes of the fairy tale and described the characters in a bolder manner, thus complementing Rimsky-Korsakov’s music in an amazingly harI monious way. Judging by the memoirs of his contemporaries, Belsky was the only “born librettist combining a loving knowledge of old Russian traditions and folk poetry with a precise and resonant verse, a sense of stage and a musical grounding”3.

The resulting opera sounded truly topical at the time: it spoke rather directly about the rotten Tsarist regime committing crimes and not keeping its promises. Its audacity and wit were very appealing, and as early as February 1908, Vladimir Telyakovsky (1860-1924), director of the Imperial Theatres, started talks with the composer about staging the opera at the Bolshoi Theatre. However, it took the Tsar’s censorship committee more than a year to grant a permit for the production!

Unconcealed political allusions in the text could not but displease the custodians of the law.

“He’s got Tsar’s rank and clothing But his body and soul are those
of a slave.
What does he look like? His figure’s Odd curves remind one of a camel,
And his grimaces and whims Are those of a monkey... ”

The rest of the libretto was equally poisonous: such lines were outrageous and could not be uttered from an Imperial stage. Lengthy negotiations and disheartening hindrances followed, which probably accelerated Rimsky-Korsakov’s death. The composer declined numerous requests by Sergei Gershelman, the Acting Governor-General of Moscow, to make cuts in the text, not wishing to distort the play’s message. “So,” he wrote bitterly, “‘The Cockerel’ cannot be staged in Russia. I do not intend to make any changes.”4 Nevertheless, there had been some work on changing separate parts of the text. As Rimsky-Korsakov wrote to his publisher Boris Yurgenson: “The three of us, including Telyakovsky, re-read all the censored parts. Belsky immediately improvised some changes, just in case. Telyakovsky promised to defend all the lines by Pushkin and the whole of the introduction and conclusion where we would replace the ‘bloody’ denouement by an ‘unexpected’ one, and the ‘new’ dawn will become ‘white’; some verses are softened, and the line ‘rule, lying on your side’ shall remain.”5

Despite all the efforts and suggested compromises, in June 1908, two days before his death, Rimsky-Korsakov wrote in a letter that the situation was hopeless: “As for ‘The Golden Cockerel’, things are not well with it. Moscow’s Acting Governor-General is against a production of the opera and has informed the censorship committee about that, and that is why I think that in St. Petersburg they will be against it too.”6

It was probably the death of the composer, a fervent defender of the opera’s initial text, that allowed Telyakovsky to restart negotiations on a production of the censored opera version a year later. While Rimsky-Korsakov was still alive, it was decided that the staging’s artistic director should be Konstantin Korovin, who, by then, had headed the Imperial Theatres’ theatrical decoration workshops for nearly a decade. On 12 June 1909 the artist signed a commitment to prepare the sets for three acts and the prologue by 15 July. Rehearsals for the opera started: Ossipov was to play Tsar Dodon, Bonachich the Astrologer, and Nezhdanova the Queen of Shemakha. After the dress rehearsal on 26 October 1909, Korovin, worried about the reputation of Telyakovsky, who by then had become the artist’s friend, sent an emotional letter to St. Petersburg: “I advise you to stop the production immediately by a telegram. I myself did not expect it to make such an unpleasant impression. .. .I heard inappropriate chuckles all around and opinions like ‘I’m surprised they have allowed this opera to be staged’. Believe me, my presentiment will come true, and you, as the manager, will get into trouble. all your enemies will use the production to accuse you. ‘The Golden Cockerel’ can be staged with large text cuts, and I even thought of eliminating Russian costumes.”7 In conclusion, Korovin even suggested completely cancelling the production and, to avoid loss, using the already-created costumes for the opera “The Snow Maiden”.

Eventually, the production took place, but the censorship committee kept on changing the texts and staging details until the very last moment. One day before the premiere, on 6 November, the press wrote: “It was decided to eliminate one of the Queen of Shemakha’s last cues (‘That is what a serf is for — if you are not pleased with him, slap him!’), and in the dance episode Dodon will not wear a kerchief ‘tied in a peasant way, according to the author’s remark’. ”8 Tsar Dodon was renamed Commander, and his army turned out to be Persian rather than Russian.

Meanwhile, the uncensored version of the “The Golden Cockerel” was premiered on the stage of Zimin’s Moscow Private Opera on 24 September 1909, designed by Ivan Bilibin. The almost simultaneous two productions, so different in their approach, were endlessly discussed in the press, and critics never tired of comparing them. For instance, in his announcement of the Bolshoi premiere, a critic of the “Apollo” magazine wrote about the stage set by Korovin: “In terms of fairy-tale quality and splendour, he has even surpassed Bilibin”9.

A “Moscow News” critic wrote: “The production ... impressed most of all by its dazzlingly splendid stage set and costumes, based on Korovin’s sketches. Brightness, freshness and beauty of lines and spots, brilliant general colouring, infinite taste.”10

Korovin’s design was indeed more in tune with Rimsky-Korsakov’s “resplendent” music with its complicated dynamics and infinitely varying themes, where fanciful Oriental tunes combined with major marches and solemn processions, and Russian national melodies by a whole choir expressing the people’s entreaties, alternated with the cockerel’s stringent cries. “This magic music shining with all the colours of the rainbow, is full of charm and novelty, unprecedented in Rimsky-Korsakov’s work. It could have been called the crown of musical impressionism had it not combined the most fanciful colour palette with a classical precision of contours and strict architectonics,”11 one contemporary justly remarked.

This impressionist spirit of Rimsky-Korsakov’s music was also characteristic of Korovin’s painting. Thus, “The Golden Cockerel” was staged in a united artistic and musical style, forming a complete image of the production and emphasizing the unison of the music and the stage space. The set and costumes created by Korovin revealed an infinite variety of colour play and, combined with a complex choreography of light and movement, their effect on the audience was amazing.

The first act is set in Dodon’s palace, astonishing the spectators with the whole power of Korovin’s limitless imagination — exquisite ornaments and dozens of patterns used by the artist to decorate the palace halls. By using architectural forms characteristic of his oeuvre, Korovin built a special space. He also tended to re-use a once-found compositional solution in his other sets, completely different from each other in spirit; for instance, Dodon’s halls bring to mind Korovin’s previous decors for “The Feast”, a Russian Dance Suite to music by Glinka, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Glazunov and Rimsky-Korsakov for the Diaghilev season in Paris in summer 1909. Nevertheless, the palace’s decor in “The Golden Cockerel” is unique, and the space thus created excellently accommodates the opera’s mise-en-scenes.

A military council on state affairs in this act was commented on by a critic, comparing the performers of this part in the Bolshoi and the Zimin Private Opera productions: “Mr. Ossipov is a good Dodon. His comic side comes easier and is more convincing than Speransky’s heavyish manner. ” That comic side, deliberate silliness — in general, that “note”, like a tuning fork, defined the two directors’ different approaches to “The Golden Cockerel” interpretation, and manifested itself in the performances’ artistic arrangement: “Bilibin chose a deliberately schematic flatness for his drawing and paints, a graphic idealization of popular print primitives; and here, one sees Korovin’s ‘northern tapestries’, fantastic realism and an impressionist orgy. Each of these two styles is uniquely original and complete. But it seems that Bilibin’s style is more appropriate to a book than to the stage, where there appears a disparity between a conventional prospect of popular print and real characters moving against its background; besides, its spirit is linked more to the verses of Belsky, or, rather, Pushkin, than to Rimsky-Korsakov’s music. Korovin’s style, on the contrary, is much closer to the impressionist character of Korsakov’s score; in musical terms, it is more harmonious and euphonious...”12 Conversely, some other critics accused Korovin of a lack of audacity and of distracting the audience from the satirical side of the opera. He was taking spectators away to a fantastic world of fairy tales, abounding in dazzling splendour and unearthly beauty, where, for example, the Queen of Shemakha’s tent would be revealed to the spectators in the second act as though rising from the very dawn.

That scene is the central part of the opera’s musical pitch, where a mystic side had to be combined with the punitive power of justice, with retribution. The Queen of Shemakha’s image is among the most complicated in musical literature. “It is a combination of sarcastic poison, the primitively seductive grace of the fairy-tale Orient, a poignant, nearly real tragedy of a lonely female soul looking for a worthy conqueror, and a kind of predatory demonism, alternately showing and hiding its claws. All these qualities, seemingly at odds with each other on paper, are united by the music’s charm into one — a complete, lively, bright and mysteriously beautiful union. Tunes, coming from the Queen’s lips, almost always tinted with Oriental chromatism, each one more beautiful than the last, are forever varying, and there is no end to this sea of songs, modulating with a thousand shades of passion, dream, play and mockery.”13 The gems of the Queen’s part are its instantaneous transitions between dark and light, a mockery of evil and a praise of eternal and beautiful nature. Antonina Nezhdanova, as the malicious Queen of Shemakha, succeeded in praising a coming dawn, when at sunrise, all the evil creatures preventing people from living a normal life will fade and disappear.

In the third act, where Tsar Dodon brings the Queen of Shemakha and her suite to his capital city, Korovin’s artistic genius amazed the audience with his fantastic exotic costumes. Female slaves with peacock feather fans, Arab footboys in white turbans, musicians in wide shalwars, with enormous tambourines in their hands, horned mysterious monsters, and warriors in extraordinary silvery helmets and armour — all these flare up on the stage like fireworks, enchanting spectators by their colourful combinations. The act culminated in the Astrologer’s entrance and a triumph of redemption, announced by the Golden Cockerel: “Cocka-doodle-do! I will peck the old man right on the head!”

Standing against the Prologue set — an exquisite mother-of-pearl curtain with purple-and-red flowers — the Astrologer performed his final air, basically stating that the Queen of Shemakha and himself were the only “real” persons in the story! The richness of their characters can indeed hardly be overestimated; the opera’s author has succeeded in making his fictional characters look real, symbolizing Justice and Good. The importance that Rimsky-Korsakov attached to the Astrologer was made clear by the composer in his statement meant as a joke: “Actually, you can make up the Astrologer to look like myself”14. It was probably his way of comparing a magician-astrologer to a magician-artist having artistic authority over the fantastic characters that he creates.

Anton Bonachich, invited to perform the Astrologer’s part by the producer Vasily Schkafer, was admired not only by the audience but also by Savva Mamontov himself, when the latter attended one of the rehearsals: “I did not expect Bonachich to perform the Astrologer’s part in such a powerful way; he held my full attention while he was on the stage. Such a person can deal with that devilish stuff.”’5 On the contrary, Yuly Engel thought that the singer Vladimir Pikok at Zimin’s Private Opera managed the part better than Bonachich who looked “more like a village healer of a Finnish type. His character is, though, remarkably distinctive and interesting; more harmlessly comic than significant.”’6

Critics, contradicting one another, are not always fair in their appreciations. Nevertheless, the Bolshoi production became a huge success, leading one contemporary to say: “‘The Golden Cockerel’ has turned into the goose that lays golden eggs...”!

The following year, in January 1910, the opera, performed by a temporary theatre company on the stage of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, won over that city’s public, and in May 1914, Sergei Diaghilev chose it for his Paris season, enriching it with a novel combination of ballet and opera parts, based on the ideas of Alexander Benois.

The production in Paris included the brilliant Tamara Karsavina, Mikhail Fokin as the director, and Natalya Goncharova as the designer, whose artistic arrangement was greatly admired by the Parisian audience. As Prince Volkonsky wrote: “If the walls of the French Grand Opera could speak, they would have exclaimed in surprise at the sight of what was happening within them on 21 May 1914. A Russian fairy tale with boyars, their wives, peasant women, nurses with all their kokoshniks, ‘kerchiefs and toys — only, set not on a standard opera scale but as a giant children’s book, where everything is exaggerated, resembling a child’s imagination magnifying any extraordinary event. And what imagination! Mrs. Goncharova, our famous ‘futurist’ artist, has surpassed all the limitations that a child’s imagination could possibly have.”’7

Thanks to Konstantin Stanislavsky, “The Golden Cockerel” received its new, dramatic, interpretation on the stage of the Moscow Arts Theatre, where it was premiered on 4 May 1932. According to the director’s conception, the setting was transferred from a fantastic palace to a simple village, where the Tsar was holding court with his retinue at a picnic, at the bottom of a fence with elder bushes, against a tower by Lentulov as a background. The artistic design of the performance was by Nikolai Krymov and Martiros Saryan. According to Stanislavsky’s working notes, the characters’ costumes had to be made of expensive fabric but look generally worn and untidy, and the Astrologer’s cloak had to be embroidered with red Soviet stars! Given the circumstances and the spirit of time, it was dangerous to reveal the work’s true satirical character, and therefore altruism was supposed to be its meaning.

An interesting footnote to the opera’s production history is that, in 1934, Korovin, by then in emigration in France, designed a production of “The Golden Cockerel” in the Casino Theatre in Vichy. A quarter of a century after the opera’s premiere at the Bolshoi, the maestro reproduced, almost completely, his initial artistic conception — which was meant to divert and enchant the audience with beauty, thus remaining loyal to the only understanding of art’s nature as highly aesthetic that he accepted until the end of his days. Today, the public have the opportunity to see the “real” costumes and decor for that “The Golden Cockerel”, from Act 2 (the Queen of Shemakha’s Tent) and 3 (the Capital City), made by the artist for the 1934 production, at the Konstantin Korovin anniversary exhibition at the Tretyakov Gallery.


  1. Engel, Yuly. “Through a Contemporary’s Eyes”. Russian Arts Library, 1971. P. 276.
  2. Rimsky-Korsakov, Nikolai. “Chronicle of My Life in the Theatre.” Moscow, 1982. P. 318
  3. “Yearbook of the Imperial Theatres”. Moscow, 1st issue, 1910.
  4. Rimsky-Korsakov, Nikolai. Op.cit. P. 340.
  5. Moleva, Nina. “Konstantin Korovin. Documents. Letters. Memoirs”. Moscow, 1963. P. 360.
  6. Rymsky-Korsakov, Nikolai. Op.cit. P. 342.
  7. Moleva, Nina. Op. cit. P. 367.
  8. “Moscow News”. 6 November 1909. P. 255.
  9. “Apollo”. 1909. № 2. P.7.
  10. “Moscow News-Sheet”. 8 November 1909 № 257.
  11. Engel, Yuly. Op. cit. P. 277.
  12. “Yearbook of the Imperial Theatres”. Moscow, 1st issue, 1910. P. 152
  13. Engel, Yuly. Op. cit. P. 271.
  14. Kunin, Ilya. Rymsky-Korsakov. Moscow. 1974. C. 262.





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