"The Tale is a Mask"

Written by Luc Birraux
at La Monnaie, Belgium

After CENDRILLON and DON QUICHOTTE, Laurent Pelly returns to la Monnaie in Brussels for the third time with a magical plot: THE GOLDEN COCKEREL. In our interview, the French stage director talks about the radiant attraction of Russian tales and the magic of fairy-tales.

© ®Baus _ De Munt La Monnaie


Luc Birraux (LB): Laurent Pelly, when it comes to opera, you have a penchant for fanciful, dreamlike stories. What was it that attracted you to Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s THE GOLDEN COCKEREL?

Laurent Pelly (LP): Rimsky-Korsakov is a composer that I wasn’t really familiar with, and when Peter de Caluwe asked me to stage it, I was completely blown away by the music and the content of the work. It’s a phantasmagorical tale that is funny, subversive and dark. It mixes politics and magic. In the theatre, I have staged several works of this type, such as THE NAKED KING by Evgeny Shvarts and THE GREEN BIRD by Carlo Gozzi. These works combine burlesque with the tragic and an almost naive enchantment. 

A phantasmagorical tale mixes politics and magic

LB: Russian fairy tales are very particular...

LP: Yes, they soon transmogrify into the absurd. But that is almost part of Russian culture and literature. You could say that there is a sort of tradition, a background culture that grabs hold of the values of power and, at the same time, takes an extremely caustic, pessimistic view of humanity.

Laurent Pelly. Photo: Emmanuel Grimault


LB: Rimsky-Korsakov composed THE GOLDEN COCKEREL ten years before the October Revolution. Might he have had some kind of intuition about the trouble that lay ahead?

LP: I’m sure he did. There is a magical side to the story, but also a certain prescience. However, what I’m interested in is telling the story without necessarily re-situating it in a historical context. I want to make it eloquent and evocative for a contemporary audience that isn’t necessarily familiar with the context.

There is a magical side to the story, but also a certain prescience.

LB: So, no update then?

LP: No. You know, the tale is a mask – a way to hide reality. Here it is a blow against autocracy, despotism and stupidity which, unfortunately, whether it be yesterday or today, are still the same as ever. The tack I want to take is both magical and satirical, but I also want to keep the childlike aspect; that’s why the sense of wonder is so important. But it can also be scary and dangerous. In this story, wonder and death go almost hand-in-hand. The line that set designer Barbara de Limburg and I are going to take will obviously involve lots of things that evoke the Russia of the last hundred years, but our main objective is essentially a human one. Instead of contextualising the piece in a specific era, I prefer to go for an emotional, magical, fantastical approach.

The tale is a mask – a way to hide reality.

LB: Let’s talk about the characters. It's almost as if they were either stupid or malicious. Could you tell us about some of them?

LP: The most striking character in THE GOLDEN COCKEREL is the astrologer, who says that the only real characters in the story are the princess and himself, whereas they are actually the most fantastical. The intention, of course, is to divorce us from reality. I always start with the idea that a play is the dream of a character or an author and, for me, THE GOLDEN COCKEREL is, first and foremost, Dodon’s dream. What we are essentially witnessing is the decline, the descent into senile insanity of this imbecilic tyrant who, at the same time, is a kind of Everyman. It isn’t the first time that we have seen someone who, in later life, wants to turn his back on his responsibilities. He gets bogged down by the burden of his awesome power, while dreaming of an almost naive repose. And beyond this repose, he fantasises about a sensual, erotic love story... I was going to say, just like all of us, basically. 

Rasputin and the astrologer, while not completely identical, both share the art of manipulation!

The astrologer is not so clear-cut either. He is both inside and outside of the story (which is quite a modern idea). Might the story just be a cold-hearted calculation to win over the queen? He reminds me of Rasputin, with this hypnotic side and his long greasy hair. He’s an incredible character. Despite coming from nothing, he has managed to manipulate the Tsar and his family. Rasputin and the astrologer, while not completely identical, both share the art of manipulation!

© ®Baus _ De Munt La Monnaie


LB: And the cockerel – is it really a character?

LP: Roosters tend not to be that smart. Especially given that here, it is basically a kind of instrument of death, even though it is initially supposed to save the kingdom from outside attack – or at least protect the king’s repose – but ends up plunging it into ruin. This particular cockerel is an imbecile! And he deserves his place alongside the other characters.

LB: How are you going to get all that across on an opera stage?

A tale's irrational and mysterious sides give it an infinite quality.

LP: As far as the visual aspect is concerned, Barbara and I were looking for something brutal but simultaneously absurd and dreamlike. We have built the show around a black rock that symbolises the people’s servitude, and a huge luxurious bed that represents the king's fantasy. The characters who walk across this rock are all dressed in white, a white that gradually becomes stained. When I approach a subject such as this, I always try to find poetic solutions for the piece rather than reducing it to a single interpretation. For me, a work like THE GOLDEN COCKEREL is extraordinary because it is multifaceted. A tale is a boundless thing; its irrational and mysterious sides give it an infinite quality – there are no limits to how it can be interpreted. It is pure poetry. The work and the music hold up a mirror to each and every one of us.