Behind Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel’s exotic melodies, political satire masquerades in Pushkin’s fairy tale—as a dim-witted head of state, Tsar Dodon, leads his country into a disastrous war on the advice of equally stupid counselors. “The music is truly magical…comic and deeply moving,” says stage director Paul Curran (La Donna del Lago, 2013). Conducted by Emmanuel Villaume (La Fanciulla del West, 2016), it features bass-baritone Eric Owens (Wozzeck, 2011) and contralto Meredith Arwady (The Impresario and Le Rossignol, 2014), along with tenor Barry Banks (Ermione, 2000). Acclaimed Russian soprano, Venera Gimadieva makes her Santa Fe debut as the Queen.


Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov


Vladimir Nikolayevich Bel’sky






The purely human character of Pushkin’s story, The Little 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 tsardom”, “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 fairy 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 Little 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 Tsaritsa.

Did they hatch a plot against Dodon? Did they meet by accident, both intent on the tsar’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 Tsar Dodon. He is unsuccessful and to console himself, he presents to the audience, in his magic lantern the story of heartless royal ingratitude.


The Astrologer, the opera’s framing character and its implied narrator, appears to warn the audience that he is about to conjure up a cautionary tale.


The King complains that he is tired of warfare but that his neighbors keep invading. Assembling his councilors and two sons, he asks how they may avoid future conflicts. The conflicting opinions among his advisors vary highly to say the least. The Astrologer appears with a magic Golden Cockerel who, placed on a high perch, can warn of any border disturbance and also let the Tsar know when it is safe to “reign, lying on your side.” The kind is elated and promises any reward the Astrologer can name. To make it lawful, the Astrologer wants a binding document from the King, of which the King refuses with “My whims and orders…are the law here.” Later, the Cockerel offers reassurance to all for a restful evening. In his dreams, the King has a vision of the Queen of Shemakha. Suddenly the Cockerel sounds the alarm and the army is mobilized and lead by the King’s two sons. The King dons his rusty armor, which he has grotesquely outgrown, and goes off to battle.


Looking in vain for the battle, the Tsar stumbles upon the bodies of his two sons, whose armies have apparently fought each other to total destruction. The beautiful Queen of Shemakha appears singing her famous Hymn to the Sun and brazenly shares that she has come to subdue the Tsar, not by a warring force, but through voluptuous seduction. King Dodon banishes his loyal commander, ordering that he be beheaded, and the Queen agrees to return with him as his consort.


The final scene starts with the wedding procession in all its splendor. The Astrologer reappears and says to Dodon, “You promised me anything I could ask for if there could be a happy resolution of your troubles … .” The King replies, “Just name it and you shall have it.” The Astrologer tells Dodon, “I want the Queen of Shemakha!” The King then flares up in fury, striking down the Astrologer. The Golden Cockerel, loyal to the Astrologer, swoops across and pecks through the Tsar’s jugular. The sky darkens.


The Astrologer announces the end of his story, reminding the audience that what they have witnessed was “merely illusion.”



In the shadow of a presidential election, is fantasy any stranger than political reality? A similar question might well have prompted Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov to create his dazzling 1908 opera The Golden Cockerel, which combines elements of fairy tale and political satire. He had enjoyed a critical and popular triumph in 1907 with his opera The Invisible City of Kitezh, and expected it to be his last. But like many of his compatriots, he was angered by politics in Russia, where the disastrous Russo-Japanese war (1904 – 1905) — a conflict that seemed very distant from most citizens’ concerns — had made their privations even worse.

Amid widespread unrest, a sophisticated fairy tale in verse by Pushkin — the Russian literary hero who had been the source for Kitezh and many other operas — seemed a perfect commentary on the times. The story is populated by political idiots, including a king’s sons who manage to kill each other in battle. The composer cloaked his satirical barbs in shrewdly altered folk melodies, fictional place names, and exotic, foreign-sounding music. Even so, the message was plain enough to outrage the czarist government, which forbade the opera’s performance. Its composer never lived to see it staged.

In The Golden Cockerel we hear Rimsky-Korsakov’s musical affinities — foreign color, brilliant orchestration, scintillating harmonies, virtuosic writing — expressed with a melodic freedom that could only have come late in his career. We are ushered into the opera’s fictitious kingdom by an Astrologer, who welcomes us to a cautionary fable set in the realm of King Dodon. Any resemblance to the now-extinct bird, famous for its clumsiness and inability to adapt, is purely intentional.

Amid burlesque humor satirizing human folly, it becomes clear that Dodon’s kingdom is continually at war; no sooner does one end than another begins. The Astrologer appears, offering a seeming panacea: a golden cockerel that can provide advance warning of any kind of threat. It can also announce when the king can safely relax. Thrilled, Dodon offers the Astrologer any reward he wishes in exchange for the bird, which promptly announces attackers advancing on two fronts. The king puts his two sons in charge of two armies to repel the two invaders. But in the opera’s second act, he discovers that his defenders, taking each other for enemies, have fought to total destruction on both sides. This leaves the King without military protection — and leaves the way clear for the beautiful, brilliant Queen Shemakha, who declares she will conquer Dodon without force of arms.

Shemakha fulfills her promise by way of a seductive dance. But in Act III, as the wedding procession of Shemakha and Dodon approaches, the Astrologer reappears and demands his reward: the Queen. Dodon of course refuses; by the time this non-military conflict is resolved, he and the Astrologer will be dead, and Queen Shemakha and the Golden Cockerel will have disappeared. Or will they? In his epilogue, the Astrologer tells us that the events are make-believe and that only he and the Queen are real — leaving us to ponder a sophisticated, Brechtian critique of misguided rule wrapped in a folk-tale of magical charm.

Bringing this fantasy to life on stage, director Paul Curran (La Donna del Lago, 2013) mobilizes modern technology and video; Emmanuel Villaume (The Pearl Fishers, 2012; The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein, 2013; La Fanciulla del West, 2016) conducts. The production features Eric Owens (Wozzeck, 2011), contralto Meredith Arwady (The Impresario and Le Rossignol, 2014), and Barry Banks, who made his Santa Fe debut in 2000 (Ermione) returns. As the beautiful, enigmatic Shemakha — whose seductive “Hymn to the Sun” is Rimsky-Korsakov’s most famous aria — we hear the exciting international soprano Venera Gimadieva in her company debut.

—Michael Clive

Tickets for the following performances are:

July 15, 19, 28 at 8:30 PM

August 3, 9, 18 at 8:00PM

Tickets available at:

$38 – $202