This July, Les Saisons Russes du XXI Siècle return to London for a season that includes the UK premiere of Diaghilev’s exotic and dazzling “Le Coq d’Or” (The Golden Cockerel). Charlotte Kasner talked to Directors Andris Liepa and Georgiy Isaakyan about the opera-ballet.

'Le Coq d'Or'.  Photo © Elena Lapina

‘Le Coq d’Or’.
Photo © Elena Lapina

It is hard to believe that the involving and magical “Le Coq d’Or” is more than a century old. Like the golden bird of its title, it is a real jewel and, like all of the grossly underrated operas of Rimsky-Korsakov, rarely seen outside Russia.

This July, at last, London audiences get their chance to feast their eyes and ears on the work as part of a season presented by Les Saisons Russes, Bolshoi Ballet star turned ballet entrepreneur, director and producer Liepa’s own collective. For just three nights at the Coliseum, it will be performed by the orchestra, chorus and ballet from Moscow’s Natalia Sats Moscow State Opera and Ballet Theatre, where the Isaakyan is General and Artistic Director.

Based on an episode from Washington Irving’s “Tales of the Alhambra”, “Le Coq d’Or” was itself derived from Alexander Pushkin’s “Tale of the Golden Cockerel”. On one level, it is simply a delightful fairy-tale in a similar vein to the earlier “Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh”. The bird of the title is able to warn of danger and is given to the foolish Tsar Dodon by the court astrologer so he will be alerted to invasion. In exchange, the Tsar vows to grant the astrologer a future wish. Sure enough, the cockerel crows and Dodon rushes to the battlefield. He arrives only to find that his inept sons have managed to kill each other, but not the enemy army. Instead, he finds the Queen of Shemakha, with whom he is instantly smitten. He decides to marry her only to discover that the astrologer’s wish is to have the Queen for himself. Dodon refuses and kills him. The cockerel in turn kills Dodon, the Queen disappearing with a shriek of laughter. The astrologer then re-appears in an epilogue where he tells the audience that most of what they have seen was of course an illusion – only he and the Queen are real.

'Coq d'Or' onstage at the Natalia Sats Theatre, Moscow, with Daria Liakisheva as the Queen of Shemakha and Oleg Fomin as Tsar Dodon.  Photo © Elena Lapina

‘Le Coq d’Or’ onstage at the Natalia Sats Theatre, Moscow, with Daria Liakisheva as the Queen of Shemakha and Oleg Fomin as Tsar Dodon.
Photo © Elena Lapina

As much as it is a fairy-tale, “Le Coq d’Or” is therefore a child of turmoil. Written just two years after the first Russian Revolution and the disastrous Russo-Japanese War, it did not receive a premiere until a year after the composer’s death. It is impossible to tell what the consequences would have been for Rimsky-Korsakov in the repressions that followed the failed revolution, not least because he had been dismissed from his professorship in the Conservatoire, where he had been teaching for more than three decades, for supporting striking students. What is certain is that the work was banned by the censor, which led to the belated and posthumous first performance by a private opera company.

“Le Coq d’Or” is also patently a satire, every bit as sharp as any that flowed from Gogol’s pen, lampooning Tsar Nicholas II’s failure to gain a warm water base at Port Arthur (now known as Lushunkou) in what is today the Chinese province of Dalian and the appalling casualties and consequences of the lost war. How pertinent for today too, as Vladimir Putin appears, in a reversal of fortune, to have secured a warm water port in the Crimea, so far with little bloodshed. Plus ça change.

Vladimir Belsky made changes to Pushkin’s version, adding characters and including changing the Tsar’s name from Dadon (Дадон) to Dodon (Додон), which it has been suggested, is a deliberate allusion to a dodo. This was not lost on the state censor who, when it was finally shown at the Bolshoi in 1917, insisted on further alterations to tone down the more obvious satirical points. He seems however to have allowed the decidedly barbed epilogue to remain.

Andris Liepa.  Photo © Elena Lapina

Andris Liepa.
Photo © Elena Lapina

Georgiy Isaakyan.  Photo © Elena Lapina

Georgiy Isaakyan.
Photo © Elena Lapina

In the meantime, the work had already been staged as a spectacular opera-ballet by Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes in Paris in the portentous year of 1914, and it is from this production that Liepa and Isaakyan take their inspiration. They are the ideal pairing, one steeped in a ballet background and the other in opera. Liepa described their relationship as being like a game of ping pong as ideas have been batted back and forth within the framework of mutual co-operation and understanding. Designer, choreographer, dancers, singers and both directors have cast aside any petty feelings of jealousy and insecurity that so often mar productions and worked in true partnership to re-create the work, he said.

Liepa has devoted a large part of his career to resurrecting the Russian Seasons ballets in their original form. His and Isaakyan’s incredibly colourful revival of ‘Le Coq d’Or’, premiered in Moscow in April 2013 and subsequently staged in Paris, follows years of meticulous research. Liepa said he loved everything about his father Maris’ world: the dancing, music, costumes and choreography. “I was fascinated by the history of dance and learned so much from him about legendary performers, choreographers, musicians, designers of the past – particularly Diaghilev, Fokine, Bakst, and Stravinsky, anyone from that fascinating period when ballet was setting a new path, making a great impact on the 20th century.”

After the Revolution, Liepa explained, when Diaghilev and many other artists left Russia, the works that they created were then largely lost to their homeland for many years. The idea of reviving and bringing them and their creations back to life, and particularly back to Russia, came to him in 1991 when he visited Diaghilev’s grave near Venice. “I saw the shoes dancers leave on his grave and I felt I had to give something too, so I danced my father’s version of Diaghilev’s Le Spectre de la Rose,” he said. While a couple of publications that were available to arts students in Soviet times mentioned Diaghilev, his legacy, and that of his collaborators, was not promoted with the possible exception of “Chopiniana”, an early version of “Les Sylphides”, which remained in the Russian repertoire. “So, in many ways, this is a voyage of discovery for Russians too,” he added.

Oleg Fomin as Tsar Dodon with Pavel Okunev as Le Coq d'Or.  Photo © Elena Lapina.

Oleg Fomin as Tsar Dodon with Pavel Okunev as Le Coq d’Or.
Photo © Elena Lapina.

Liepa agreed that he has been fortunate that his painstaking research has coincided with increasing availability of historical records. He told how his father garnered a collection of drawings from the period and how, in 1992, he was privileged to be the first person in decades to view the previously closed Lunacharsky archives in St Petersburg (now the St Petersburg State Theatre Library), as well as having access to private collections. One rare sketch, now in private hands, is the only surviving record of one of Natalia Goncharova’s rich and complex backcloths that were packed with buildings made up of startling combinations of reds, pinks and yellows. That was enough. Set and costumes have been lovingly and lavishly re-created with hand-painting but with the advantage of modern dyes and materials.

Alas, the same cannot be said for the more ephemeral choreography. Of “Le Coq d’Or” there is just five minutes of film surviving as a record. However, as Liepa observed, Fokine’s style is well known, not least because of the range of his works danced in exile.

Ballet and opera rarely synthesise, so it is great to see it come together here. Diaghilev was ever the modernist, always in pursuit of the new. In some respects, he was a dictator (more or less benevolent, depending on the point of view), but in others he was the arch collaborator. Like Marie Rambert whom he promoted, his talent lay, not in his own artistic ambitions, (he had actually been a pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov who discouraged him from pursuing his aims to be a singer and composer!), but in assembling some of greatest artists of his time and somehow enabling them to collaborate.

“Le Coq d’Or” sees singers and dancers share the stage, with the singers representing the inner life of the dancers and the dancers embodying the singers’ narrative. The Queen of Shemakha’s liquid notes can be visualised as pure movement and the Golden Cockerel’s leitmotif can be illustrated in dance. Its synthesis of art forms was not only ahead of its time in 1917, but still seems radical today.

For the production, Isaakyan has merged his vast experience from the legendary Perm State Opera and Ballet Theatre (the city where Diaghilev graduated from school and which now supports the Diaghilev Museum and the international festival, Diaghilev Seasons) and, more recently from Moscow, with Liepa’s vast knowledge and experience of the Ballets Russes material. Having been involved in the Perm Diaghilev celebrations, he is the ideal candidate to assist with the fusion of opera and ballet. Perm Opera was a crucible for innovative productions during the Soviet era and in fact, Diaghilev’s grandfather had donated major funds to support the famous theatre. The Kirov (Mariinsky) Ballet was exiled there during the Second World War and many great dancers graduated from its prestigious school.It is quite remarkable how prescient the production seems: our conversation took place on the 142nd anniversary of Diaghilev’s birth (March 31st) and the work received its first non-Russian performance in the very same Théâtre des Champs Élysées in Paris where Diaghilev had shown it 99 years before. It will premiere in London at the Coliseum exactly one hundred years later in the theatre that provided a home to so many of his productions and dancers (often sandwiched in between performing seals and comedians) when the major opera houses were closed to him.

There are so many ways in which “Le Coq d’Or” promises to be enjoyed. Fairy-tale, historical or contemporary satire, the choice is yours. The agony is that we have to wait until the summer.

“Le Coq d’Or” (“The Golden Cockerel”) is at the London Coliseum, July 8-10 at 7.30pm..

Les Saisons Russes will also be performing:
Petrushka/Chopiniana/Polovtsian Dances – July 11 at 7.30pm, and July 12 at 2.30pm and 7.30pm
Chopiniana/Diaghilev Gala – July 13 at 3pm
Swan Lake – July 15-19 at 7.30pm, with matinees on July 17 and 19 at 2.30pm

Tickets: www.eno.org or 020 7845 9300