The Golden Cockerel is an opera in three acts, with short prologue and even shorter epilogue, by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Its libretto, by Vladimir Belsky, derives from Alexander Pushkin's 1834 poem The Tale of the Golden Cockerel, which in turn is based on two chapters of Tales of the Alhambra by Washington Irving. The opera was completed in 1907 and premiered in 1909 in Moscow, after the composer's death. Outside Russia it has often been performed in French as Le coq d'or.
Place: In the thrice-tenth kingdom, a far off place (beyond thrice-nine lands) in Russian fairy tales
Note: There is an actual city of Shemakha (also spelled "Şamaxı", "Schemacha" and "Shamakhy"), which is the capital of the Shamakhi Rayon of Azerbaijan. In Pushkin's day it was an important city and capital of what was to become the Baku Governorate. But the realm of that name, ruled by its queen, bears little resemblance to today's Shemakha and region; Pushkin likely seized the name for convenience, to conjure an exotic monarchy.
After quotation by the orchestra of the most important leitmotifs, a mysterious Astrologer comes before the curtain and announces to the audience that, although they are going to see and hear a fictional tale from long ago, his story will have a valid and true moral.
The bumbling King Dodon talks himself into believing that his country is in danger from a neighbouring state, Shemakha, ruled by a beautiful queen. He requests advice of the Astrologer, who supplies a magic Golden Cockerel to safeguard the king's interests. When the cockerel confirms that the Queen of Shemakha does harbor territorial ambitions, Dodon decides to pre-emptively strike Shemakha, sending his army to battle under the command of his two sons.
However, his sons are both so inept that they manage to kill each other on the battlefield. King Dodon then decides to lead the army himself, but further bloodshed is averted because the Golden Cockerel ensures that the old king becomes besotted when he actually sees the beautiful Queen. The Queen herself encourages this situation by performing a seductive dance – which tempts the King to try and partner her, but he is clumsy and makes a complete mess of it. The Queen realises that she can take over Dodon’s country without further fighting – she engineers a marriage proposal from Dodon, which she coyly accepts.
The Final Scene starts with the wedding procession in all its splendour. As this reaches its conclusion, the Astrologer appears and says to Dodon, “You promised me anything I could ask for if there could be a happy resolution of your troubles ... .” “Yes, yes,” replies the king, “Just name it and you shall have it.” “Right,” says the Astrologer, “I want the Queen of Shemakha!” At this, the King flares up in fury, and strikes down the Astrologer with a blow from his mace. The Golden Cockerel, loyal to his Astrologer master, then swoops across and pecks through the King’s jugular. The sky darkens. When light returns, queen and cockerel are gone.
The Astrologer comes again before the curtain and announces the end of his story, reminding the public that what they just saw was “merely illusion,” that only he and the queen were mortals and real.