Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Mercoledi Musicale

I mentioned yesterday that a story from Washington Irving's The Tales of the Alhambra was the source of a poem by Alexander Pushkin that gave rise to an opera by Rimsky-Korsekov.  Written in 1834 The Tale of the Golden Cockerel was the last of Pushkin's six fairy tales in verse.

Under the reactionary rule of Nicholas I, intellectuals such as Pushkin were subject to close surveillance and strong censorship.  The poet was angry and frustrated but like many others turned his outrage into his work with a particularly pointed satirical look at a bellicose Tzar who has fallen in to indolent old age - getting rid of his wise counselors and listening to the call of a golden cockerel to warn him of danger. The countries he has once waged war on are now looking of their revenge as they see the once mighty power reduced to feasting and sleeping.

Out of the devastation of the battlefield - in their ineptitude his two sons have killed each other in a fight against the foreign forces -  the enchanting Queen of Shemakha appears (right: Natalia Goncharov's design for the Queen in the Diaghilev production in 1914) .  She totally bewitches the King who leads her back to his Kingdom and proposes to make her his Queen.  However the Astrologer who presented him with the magical Cockerel demands the payment he was promised with disastrous results.

Rimsky-Korsakov saw a similarity between the story of Tsar Dodon, Tsar Nicholas II, the Russo-Japanese War and the events of Bloody Sunday.  Though he had considered The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh (1905) to be his last opera he decided that Pushkin's story would allow him to compose " a razor-sharp satire of the autocracy, of Russian imperialism, and of the Russo-Japanese war."  Needless to say when Zolotoy petushok (The Golden Cockerel) was completed in 1907 the  work was banned by the Palace censors.  It was premiered posthumously in 1909 - one year after the composer's death.

As the mist clears over the battlefield where Tsar Dodon has been mourning the death of his sons a tent is revealed.  As the sun rises the tent opens and the mysterious and beautiful Queen of Shemakha emerges and greets the rising sun.

The Hymn to the Sun is a concert favourite of many a coloratura soprano and has been recorded by many Russian sopranos, Amelita Galli-Curci, Beverly Sills, Mattiwilda Dobbs, Lily Pons and here the South Korean soprano Sumi Jo.  This was recorded during a live performance in Toulouse in 2003.  It's quite easy to see how the old Tsar could become besotted with a voice like this.

Though it is not produced all that often these days there have been some notable revivals and my good friend David saw and reviewed a production in London last month.  It was part of a Diaghilev festival and was a reconstruction of his 1914 production that combined dancers on stage and singers in evening dress at the side.

An illustration by Arthur J. Dixon from "The Arabian Astrologer" for an early 20th century edition of Tales of the Alhambra.

In Irving's Tale of the Arabian Astrologer Aben Habuz, the King of Granada, isn't pecked to death by the Astrologer's talisman but his old age is made miserable by the loss of the beautiful Princess, the forays of the surrounding nations into his Kingdom and the disappearance of the Palace of Delights he had been promised by Ibrahim Ebn Abu Ayub.  But the magical gate that was intended to led to this earthly paradise was eventually to become the Gate of Justice of the Alhambra.  And beyond it was built Al-Ḥamrā, a palace that "in some measure realizes the fabled delights of the promised Garden of Irem."

August 13 - 1792: King Louis XVI of France is formally arrested by the National Tribunal, and declared an enemy of the people.

1 comment:

David said...

Coincidentally, I've been looking for the Washington Irving tale. Looks as if I only have to click on your top link to find it, but it's not in my two WI collections.

Our Zolotoy Petushok really was an absolute gem, musically at least. Who knew the Natalia Sats Theatre had such a fabulous orchestra and such a great conductor? Having been deeply disappointed by Simone Young and to a less extent Marin Alsop, here's one to set alongside Susanna Malkki. It will change, eventually.