The Nose (Opus 15) premiered in 1930, too late for its wellbeing, given the emergence of Stalin’s dictatorship and the straight jacket of ‘soviet realism’. It is an early opera by the young Dimitri Shostakovich. It throbs with a hard energy. It is visceral in its musical and dramatic thrust. One early critics called it “an anarchist’s hand grenade”.
In this new production by Barrie Kosky, all its elemental humour and parody is buttressed by the vividness of poster art and the high jinks of burlesque – always with a sting in the tale. With its cast of 26 principals (generally taking on multiple roles) plus chorus, this is a mighty demonstration of how true operatic ensemble works.
This absurdist tale is firmly rooted in the observed behaviour of human beings – if somewhat enlarged in the telling. At its most ludicrous it is deeply human. The tang of the music is visceral. The invention is plainly that of a young composer bursting at the seams with ideas, whiplash in execution, febrile, complex. As Gerard McBurney wrote, its rhythmic rallies offer “a striking connection to the physicality of human movement …. a visceral grasp of pulse and pattern was always part of Shostakovich’s gift”.
Given the kaleidoscope of music and emotions, it is almost impossible to understand in one viewing. Though arising from 19th Century Russia, the drama seems deeply postmodern.
Kosky plays it for laughs but does not lose sight of the darker undertow of the story: a minor disordered official, the everyman Kovalev, wakes up one morning to discover his nose is missing. In his impaired station he searches for this wilful missing part. The Nose subsequently becomes an identity, noticed, consorted with and searched for across St Petersburg. Its wilful meanderings are stealthily realised by Kosky and his production team, from its first red slash of abandonment to its staged return in a pantomime that is exotic, phallic and strangely moving.
The choreography (Otto Pichler/Thomas Herron) is a highlight of this production whether via the Hollywood glory of the tap dancing noses – delivered by leggy chorus boys – or the bizarre keystone cops, all leering smiles and mutton chop whiskers, careering out of control in pandemic confusion.
The eclectic mix of musical styles and dramatic impulses makes this a fascinating work. The funeral scene at the end of Act 1 is both monumental and savagely comic as Kovalev's nose, now consorting with the well ranked mourners, is almost aristocratic in his aggressive nonchalance, refusing to respond to Kovalev’s entreaties to return to him and his humble self. The monumental effects of this music bring forth hints of Mussorgsky – an effect that was to occur in the later Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (1934).
The scene in the newspaper office was almost Harry Potterish, in its wizened elfish way. One could almost detect aural hints of the burrowed dankness and toxic newsprint. The rabble of the third estate was beautifully pointed in the eight-part fugato that ends the scene.
Technically, the simultaneous presentation of the letter writing episodes in Act 3 Scene ii was dextrously done, full of stark disbelief and comic invective.
The casting was uniformly excellent – across the wide tapestry of human excess that the opera propels into being.
Martin Winkler as Kovalev gave a performance of extraordinary power and clarity, delivering acrobatic physical comedy and powerful enunciation of the new English translation by David Poutney.
At times he seemed to be channelling early German expressionism from the cinematic vaults. His characterisation was both repulsive and endearing. Kovalev is lascivious, unscrupulous, but vulnerable and demeaned, so our senses are completely played with by Shostakovich. Winkler’s vocal strength and clarity, his physical agility and dense layers of buffoonery carried this assumption to great heights.
John Tomlinson, with his rich bass baritone voice, gave a deft incarnation of the bumbling, smelly-handed barber, Iakolevitch, while his stentorian Clerk in the newspaper office was drolly comic. His diction, like Winkler’s, was outstanding.
Kaneen Breen as the District Inspector etched a brilliant assumption, shouting mellifluously at the top of his voice, like a deranged counter tenor – full of comic invention and deliciously ludicrous.
Antoinette O’Halloran gave a star turn in the speaking role of The Presenter, drolly infectious in her laconic voicing of this character’s deadpan put down – as well as being richly aggressive when, as Osipovna, she finds the missing nose in her bread.
Virgilio Marino gave a delightful assumption of the Valet Ivan, patenting laughter with his surreptitious gait while delivering a strong vocal presence in the warmly held high notes that scrolled, like curlicues, around each of his stage exits.
Alexander Lewis was in fine voice as The Nose – highlighting his experience with this opera.
The orchestra, conducted by Andrea Molina, were totally responsive to the eclectic exuberance of this music. The trombone breaking wind was richly unsettling – while the famous Galop was intoxicating with its crush of instrumentation: xylophone and trumpet threads coursing through the slithering sliding trombone, while flute and piccolo shrilled out both the siren and the whiplash. The interlude for percussion was arresting, especially in is softer climes.
The costuming is a riot of candy store colours – that added to the Russian doll feel of the production. The use of false noses on all the cast was both funny and threating, as was the vibrant cross dressing of the bearded ladies and the fur garbed street walkers. Kosky punches his theatrical effects with vigour and the huge cast execute them with discipline and brio. Set design and lighting (Klaus Grunberg/Anne Kuhn) were bound tightly with dramatic and comic intent.
The laughter in the theatre came in regular waves – the near capacity audience responding to the vivid musical performances and acting. Kosky tinkers a little with the absolute finale of this ribald tale, but it works, ensuring this presentation offers a precarious and ambiguous re telling, as Kovalev sneezes and once more loses his nose. Groundhog day indeed!
Opera Australia, Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House, 26th February 2018