Christopher Churcher reviews Orchestra VOX’s production of The Golden Cockerel.
In Orchestra VOX’s previous concert on 2nd December 2022 – a beguiling and multifaceted experience entitled ‘The Republic’ – Plato was set against Andriessen. The stakes of the debate couldn’t have been more profound, and the issue in question was explicit: can music really tear down a government? In The Golden Cockerel, VOX seems to answer this question with a resounding ‘yes’.
Directed and conducted by Oxford alumni Jonny Danciger and Hannah von Wiehler, VOX’s production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s last opera traversed the political landscape of the work with considerable adroitness. Written in the aftermath of the 1905 Russo-Japanese war and ‘First’ Russian Revolution, Rimsky-Korsakov’s trenchant critique of Russian imperialism and autocracy evokes uncomfortable parallels which resonate beyond the confines of tsarist Russia. Whilst the paranoid, oafish Tsar Dodon – who entrusts his kingdom to a magic chicken before launching a chaotic invasion of a neighbouring state – might easily have been cast as an overtly Putinesque or even Trumpian figure, Danciger’s production judiciously opted for a more timeless approach, taking aim at broader ironies throughout Russian history.
The line between fairy-tale, burlesque and hard reality was carefully drawn. Accompanied by the tumbling chromaticism of Rimsky-Korsakov’s score, Javier Gonzalez’s formidable clarion tenor made for a fine astrologer – a role originally written for tenor altino – whilst the constant presence of Chris Murphy made for a believably witless Dodon, his tinpot court enhanced by the makeshift set of storage boxes. Yet, it was the ‘Кокори! Кокорико!-ing’ Golden Cockerel (Antonida Kocharova), clad in quasi-Walkürian golden feathers, who exemplified the dark irony of the production. Liminally positioned behind the recurring motif of the ‘veil’ – symbolising the threshold between artifice and reality – the implication of dressing a fairytale chicken in a t-shirt mashup of Vladimir Lenin and KFC’s Colonel Sanders was particularly whimsical. Turkeys voting for Christmas, or chickens voting for KFC? Well, you can decide…
True to the generally scaled-down enterprise of VOX’s oeuvre, the 20-piece ensemble brought a chamber-like quality to the music, producing intimate feats of colla voce and gorgeous wind soli – compliments in particular to some extraordinarily colourful oboe leads from Phoebe Barber. Indeed, a larger ensemble may well have defeated the somewhat feeble acoustic of St. John’s Auditorium. One can’t help but look forward to the completion of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Centre, when productions of this quality will be able to enjoy a venue that equals them.