Close your eyes for a moment and it could be a century ago. With its sets and costumes based on historic designs, this production takes us back to the picturesque world of Russian fairy tale, where Tsars rule from brightly-coloured palaces topped by dome-shaped turrets and the moon hangs in the night sky like a giant Edam cheese.
The Moscow State Music Theatre for Young Audiences named after Natalia Sats (to give the organisation its full name) runs a full-time company putting on opera and ballet for children. Its week-long visit to London is presenting a Diaghilev festival featuring some of the ballets most closely associated with the Ballets Russes – Petrushka and Chopiniana among them – and, to start, Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Golden Cockerel.
Like most of Rimsky-Korsakov’s operas, this one is a rarity in London (though the Royal Opera did put on a production in 1999 while the Royal Opera House was closed for refurbishment). The Moscow State Music Theatre’s staging is based on Diaghilev’s opera-ballet version of 1914. This turns the work effectively into a ballet, with the chorus and solo singers, the latter in evening dress, relegated to standing on the side.
The result is quaint, as much a pantomime as an opera or ballet, and almost unnervingly innocent. It is somehow heartening to imagine the youth of Moscow settling down happily to an evening like this in the theatre rather than watching pop videos on YouTube like teenagers everywhere else.
Whether the legendary Diaghilev would have settled for the modest standards on show here is another matter. Among the dancers, Oleg Fomin’s ginger-bearded King Dodon, with his comically pompous stance, came across uncannily like a Russian John Cleese. Alexander Tsilinko was his sturdy operatic counterpart, and singers Olesya Titenko and Petr Melentiev wrestled with their improbably high roles as the Queen of Shemakha and the Astrologer. Alevtina Ioffe conducted the Moscow State Theatre Orchestra in Rimsky-Korsakov’s glittering score. Set aside the moments when it feels as if one has wandered into the Monty Python reunion at the O2 Arena by mistake. This is a colourful slice of family entertainment, redolent of another era.