Banned in Moscow: Rimsky-Korsakov's 'The Golden Cockerel'

Rimsky-Korsakov Golden CockerelFor centuries and longer, creative artists who dared to cross certain boundaries have had to deal with both official and unofficial attacks on their. Even in the U.S., where the first amendment tends to short circuit government attempts at censorship, both public and political outcries have at times driven books from the shelves, movies from the theaters and art from the galleries, though often only temporarily.

Opera, on the other hand, may not be regarded as a particularly controversial form of expression -- especially when just about anyone can use cyberspace to express whatever opinion they like, to the entire world, in the blink of an eye. But history, and the pointed drama featured here, prove that even opera can sometimes provoke the ire of the powers that be.

One famous example of an opera that faced down official censorship is Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro. The play it's based on was banned in France, and the opera was a tough sell in 18th-century Vienna, even after it was toned down to meet objections about the story's insolent treatment of authority figures, and the ruling class in general.

During the next century, Giuseppe Verdi faced official disapproval on a number of occasions. His opera A Masked Ball actually depicts the assassination of a monarch, the King of Sweden -- or at least it did in its original version. To get it past the censors, Verdi had to move the action from Stockholm all the way to Boston, and turn the king into a lowly colonial governor. Verdi's Attila and Stiffelio both faced censorship on religious grounds, for their unflattering depictions of clerics -- including, in Attila, the Pope.

And when it comes to religious objections to opera, those two examples are only the tip of the iceberg. There was a time, in many places, when putting religious figures and stories on stage, in any context, was flatly forbidden.

As for Rimsky-Korsakov's The Golden Cockerel, it's a fairly rare example of an opera that both offended the sensibilities of powerful, government authorities -- and may actually have been intended to do exactly that.

Rimsky-Korsakov The Golden Cockerel Bolshoi TheatreThe opera was completed immediately after the Russo-Japanese War. That conflict was a disaster for the Russian government, which was forced to give up substantial territories after unexpected and humiliating losses in battle.

The Golden Cockerel may be set in a mythical kingdom, but in the Russia of 1907, the opera's story surely struck uncomfortably close to home. It deals with a blatantly dimwitted tsar who is faced with the onset of war, and follows the seemingly absurd advice of his advisors. The result is a catastrophe which destroys both the kingdom, and the tsar himself.

Not surprisingly, the government took a dim view. Though completed in 1907, the opera was initially banned, and the composer never saw it performed. It was finally staged in 1909, one year after Rimsky-Korsakov's death.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents The Golden Cockerel in a production from Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre. The stars are bass Vladimir Matorin as the inept Tsar Dodon, soprano Venera Gimadieva as the devious enemy Queen who steals his kingdom, and tenor Jeff Martin as the Astrologer whose advice leads Dodon to an ignominious demise.

by Bruce Scott