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The Nose

Royal Opera House

In Review The Nose London hdl 117
Tomlinson and Winkler in The Nose at Covent Garden
© Bill Cooper

EIGHTY-SIX YEARS after its premiere in Leningrad, Shostakovich’s first opera, The Nose, made its debut at London’s Royal Opera House on October 20, staged by Australian-born, Berlin-based Barrie Kosky, a director who is in appreciable demand here, there and everywhere.

The work—very much a product of its early-Soviet-modernist period—is infrequently staged, although the Met introduced the opera to its repertory in 2010, in a popular production by William Kentridge that was revived in 2013 and transmitted internationally in HD. The Nose is extremely demanding: the orchestra is enormous (on this occasion, the percussion section, which has one interlude all to itself, spilled out of the pit onto one side of the auditorium), and there are no fewer than seventy-seven named parts in the cast, many of them taken by singers who double, triple, quadruple or even quintuple up. The chorus also has its work cut out for it.

Based on a short story by Nikolai Gogol written in and set during the 1830s, the libretto describes how the civil servant Kovalov wakes up one morning to discover that his nose has gone missing. The remainder of the piece—structured in three acts, but here played without interval in a performance lasting a little over two hours—shows him rushing around St. Petersburg in hot pursuit, while the Nose itself (a tiny sung role, but on this occasion also represented in nasal attire by the young dancer Ilan Galkoff) has numerous adventures of its own until the two are (presumably happily?) reunited near the close. 

In an interview in the program booklet, Kosky suggested that the piece is “actually about fear and loss and paranoia, about body parts and sexuality and castration.” He’s probably right, but in this production, with its multicolored, unfailingly bright and breezy visuals by Klaus Grünberg (sets and lighting) and Buki Shiff (costumes), plus acres of hyperactive choreography by Otto Pichler that reached a peak in a sequence involving eleven tap-dancing noses—dancing without music, because Shostakovich didn’t write any for them—manic hilarity reigned. The result felt like an enormous and, to be honest, rather silly joke.

Scored in raucously abrasive fashion, The Nose (with the composer’s Second and Third Symphonies)represents the apogee of Shostakovich’s modernist phase and is a genuine tour-de-force of that style, even if the result is emotionally limited. Kosky staged it as a crazily brilliant comic entertainment, inevitably without depth but also with few longueurs.

Standouts among the very large cast were Austrian bass-baritone Martin Winkler’s tireless Kovalov, a portrayal of extraordinary comic-grotesque and vocal vitality; John Tomlinson’s sharply etched personifications of the Barber Ivan Iakovlevitch, the Newspaper Office Clerk and the Doctor (roles he undertook in the opera’s only previous British staging, when ENO took over the now defunct New Opera Company’s version in 1979, and which found him in strong and focused voice at the age of seventy); and Austrian tenor Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke’s five small roles, most noticeably a superbly realized comic turn as Kovalov’s personal servant, Ivan. 

Because it’s little-known and distinctly wordy, The Nose was sung in an English translation—a nice new one by David Pountney. Ingo Metzmacher conducted a performance notable for momentum and theatricality, even if the work, for all its cleverness, felt short on substance. —George Hall

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