The Golden Cockerel (Золотой Петушок in Russian, Zolotoy Petuschok in transliteration) is a 1834 poem by Alexander Pushkin and an opera in three acts by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov to a Russian libretto by Vladimir Ivanovich Belsky based on that poem. First performance by the Zimin Opera at Solodovnikov Theatre in Moscow on September 24, 1909.
Previously, the opera was commonly performed in French under the still recognized title Le Coq d'Or. Nowadays, the opera is almost exclusively sung in Russian. There are several recordings of the opera, and it is occasionally performed.
The bumbling King Dodon talks himself into believing that his country is in danger from the neighbouring State governed by the beautiful Queen Shemakhan.
He asks for advice from a mysterious Astrologer, who gives him a magic Golden Cockerel, which promises to look after his interests.
The Golden Cockerel confirms that Queen Shemakhan certainly has some territorial ambitions, so King Dodon foolishly decides to make a pre-emptive strike against the neighbouring State, and sends his army, led by his two sons, to start the battle. However, his sons are both so inept that they manage to kill each other on the battlefield.
King Dodon then decides to lead the army himself, but further bloodshed is averted because the Golden Cockerel ensures that the old king becomes besotted when he actually sees the beautiful Queen. The Queen herself encourages this situation by performing a seductive dance - which tempts the King to try and partner her, but he is clumsy and makes a complete mess of it.
The Queen realises that she can take over Dodon’s country without further fighting - she engineers a marriage proposal from Dodon, which she coyly accepts.
The final scene starts with the great Bridal procession in all its splendour - and when this is reaching its conclusion, the Astrologer appears and says to the king “You promised me anything I could ask for if there could be a happy resolution of your troubles.......” “Yes, Yes, “ said the king, “Just name it and you shall have it”. “Right,” said the Astrologer, “I want Queen Shemakhan!”. At this, the King flares up in fury, and strikes down the Astrologer with a blow from his mace. The Golden Cockerel, loyal to her Astrologer master, then swoops across and pecks through the King’s jugular.
Factors in the writing of the opera
Four factors influenced Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov to write this opera-ballet.
R-K’s other works inspired by Alexander Pushkin's poems, especially Tsar Saltan, had been very successful. The Golden Cockerel had the same magic!
Ivan Bilibin had already produced artwork for the Golden Cockerel, and this conjured up the same traditional Russian folk flavours as those in Tsar Saltan.
Czar Nicholas II had foolishly started the Russo-Japanese War by making a pre-emptive strike against the Japanese forces in Manchuria and Korea. This war was highly unpopular amongst the Russian people - it proved to be a military disaster, and Russia was eventually defeated. (Remember that in the Golden Cockerel, King Dodon foolishly decides to make a pre-emptive strike against the neighbouring State, and there is huge chaos and bloodshed on the battlefield. The king himself gives more attention to his personal pleasures, and comes to a sticky end!)
The Russian people were not only upset by the Russo-Japanese War, but more importantly by their feudal living conditions. On January 9th, 1905, several thousand people, led by a priest, demonstrated peacefully in the Palace square in St Petersburg. They tried to hand in a petition asking for better working conditions, an 8- hour day, a minimum wage, and the prohibition of child labour. However, more than 1000 were shot by the Tsarist troops, and the date has become known as Bloody Sunday (1905). News of this spread rapidly - there was an uprising in Odessa, where the sailors in the battleship Potemkin took over the ship and fired on the headquarters of the tsarist troops. Again, there was a massacre of people on the Odessa steps. The Students in the St Petersburg Conservatoire also demonstrated against the Czar, and Rimsky Korsakov supported their protest. For this he was dismissed from his post as head of the Conservatoire. Alexander Glazunov and Anatoly Lyadov resigned and left with him. See also Russian Revolution of 1905.
So Rimsky-Korsakov decided to create a work exposing the disastrous tsarist regime, and in 1906 he started work on his Golden Cockerel opera. It was finished in 1907. The opera was immediately banned by the Palace, and was not allowed to be staged – the resemblance between the Czar and the foolish King Dodon was too close! Rimsky-Korsakov’s health was undoubtedly affected by this, and he was dead by the time it was performed two years later.
1907 Preface to Le Coq d'Or by librettist V. Bel'sky
The purely human character of Pushkin's story, The Golden Cockerel - a tragi-comedy showing the fatal results of human passion and weakness - allows us to place the plot in any surroundings and in any period. On these points the author does not commit himself, but indicates vaguely in the manner of fairy-tales: "In a certain far-off kingdom", "in a country set on the borders of the world".... Nevertheless, the name Dodon and certain details and expressions used in the story prove the poet's desire to give his work the air of a popular Russian tale (like Tsar Saltan), and similar to those fables expounding the deeds of Prince Bova, of Jerouslan Lazarevitch or Erhsa Stchetinnik, fantastical pictures of national habit and costumes. Therefore, in spite of Oriental traces, and the Italian names Duodo, Guidone, the tale is intended to depict, historically, the simple manners and daily life of the Russian people, painted in primitive colours with all the freedom and extravagance beloved of artists.
In producing the opera the greatest attention must be paid to every scenic detail, so as not to spoil the special character of the work. The following remark is equally important. In spite of its apparent simplicity, the purpose of The Golden Cockerel is undoubtedly symbolic.
This is not to be gathered so much from the famous couplet: "Tho' a fable, I admit, moral can be drawn to fit!" which emphasises the general message of the story, as from the way in which Pushkin has shrouded in mystery the relationship between his two fantastical characters: The Astrologer and the Queen.
Did they hatch a plot against Dodon? Did they meet by accident, both intent on the king's downfall? The author does not tell us, and yet this is a question to be solved in order to determine the interpretation of the work. The principal charm of the story lies in so much being left to the imagination, but, in order to render the plot somewhat clearer, a few words as to the action on the stage may not come amiss.
Many centuries ago, a wizard, still alive today sought, by his magic cunning to overcome the daughter of the Aerial Powers. Failing in his project, he tried to win her through the person of King Dodon. He is unsuccessful and to console himself, he presents to the audience, in his magic lantern the story of heartless royal ingratitude.
Composer's Remarks (1907, N. Rimsky-Korsakov)
1 The composer does not sanction any "cuts."
2 Operatic singers are in the habit of introducing ejaculations, spoken words, etc. into the music, hoping thereby to produce dramatic, comic or realistic effect. Far from adding significance to the music, these additions and emendations merely disfigure it. The composer desires that the singers in all his works keep strictly to the music written for them.
3 Metronome marks must be followed accurately. This does not imply that artists should sing like clock-work, they are given full artistic scope, but they must keep within bounds.
4 The composer feels it necessary to reiterate the following remark in lyrical passages, those actors who are on the stage, but not singing at the moment, must refrain from drawing the attention of the spectators to themselves by unnecessary by-play. An opera is first and foremost a musical work.
5 The part of the Astrologer is written for a voice seldom met with, that of tenor-altino. It may however be entrusted to a lyric tenor possessing a strong alsetto, for the part is written in the extremely high register.
6 The Golden Cockerel demands a strong soprano or high mezzosoprano voice.
7 The dances performed by the King and Queen in the second act, must be carried out so as not to interfere with the singers breathing by too sudden or too violent movement.