Dmitri Shostakovich’s rarely performed first opera, The Nose (1930), premièred in the Sydney Opera House on 21 February. To add to the ‘firsts’: this was Barrie Kosky’s début at Covent Garden in 2016, it is Kosky’s first work for Opera Australia in almost twenty years, and this is the first professional production of this grotesque and satirical opera in Sydney, and possibly Australia.
Like many other operas, The Nose is greatly assisted by excellent staging; as is the case with few operas, its outrageously quirky music would work less well without the visual experience. Music and action are of equal importance here. The frequent use of orchestral sounds to imitate noises (such as the dramatic sneeze at the very end of the opera), the intermezzo written solely for percussion instruments, the extremes of vocal and instrumental registers, the long and awkward intervals in the singing parts, and many other effects make this opera a highly eccentric musical encounter. This brilliantly scored work manifestly breaks with the conventions of arias and cantilena musical lines, as it expresses the text through continuous speech-like recitatives and even, recitative-like speeches; the composer regularly includes prose in his opera.
Much of the performance’s energy is propelled from the pit, governed by Andrea Molino’s vigorous and confident conducting. He holds the orchestra’s playing of virtuosic parts together with ease, maintains a good balance between instrument groups, and always has a caring eye for his singers. His empathy with this music, coupled with his no-nonsense, effective conducting style, make him an ideal proponent of this opera. Importantly, in a performance just short of two hours and performed without a break, there was not a moment of lagging concentration from him or the orchestra.
This was the first time I had heard a performance in the Joan Sutherland Theatre since the recent renovations, and it was a pleasure to note how much the orchestra’s projected sound in the auditorium had improved, due to the newly installed system of discreet sound enhancement. There is depth in the orchestral texture now, and the timbre and colour of individual instruments and groups are much easier to appreciate than before.
Kosky’s artistic energy and boundless invention are admirable. His reading of the plot (based on Nikolai Gogol’s witty short story, published in 1830) is the work of an exceptionally talented director, who handles the surreal storyline with empathy. Every moment of action is carefully choreographed, whether he is working with only a few singers or with the large crowd scenes. As a result, there is constant bustle on stage. The absurdity of the efforts of the pompous public servant, Platon Kuzmitch Kovalev, as he tries to locate his nose, cut off accidentally by his alcoholic barber, reaches new heights in almost every scene.
The changing of location between the ten through-composed scenes needs refined directing skills, as all of them introduce new venues, starting with the barber shop in Kovalev’s dingy apartment, the streets of Saint Petersburg, to a newspaper office and beyond. There is no time allowed in the score for these changes. Kosky relied on the help of his regular contributors, Klaus Grünberg (set and lighting design) and Buki Shiff (costume design), both of whom did a splendid job. The costumes are exuberantly colourful, whether pseudo-authentic Tartar or garishly tacky and puppet-like, all in amicable contrast with the simple and flexible set, which provides a plausible background to every scene. (The Sydney production of the opera was revived by Felix Seiler; Kosky was also in attendance at the première.)
Kosky’s interpretation of the opera freely mixes elements of vaudeville with slapstick comedy, reminiscent of the great Buster Keaton, or even Laurel and Hardy, perhaps best demonstrated by the policemen’s parodic dance to the music of the purely orchestral ‘Canon’ in the first act. This irresistibly funny pantomime is splendidly juxtaposed with the next scene’s memorial service in Saint Petersburg’s Kazansky Cathedral, complete with a coffin and the ubiquitous nose in its man-size version.
The director’s own invention is the added intermezzo between the second and third acts, the by now legendary tap-dance of the giant noses, choreographed by Otto Pichler. This burlesque of the runaway proboscises has, of course, nothing to do with Shostakovich, yet, surprisingly, it does not seem to be out of context and makes a large contribution to the success of the evening.
At the same time, and perhaps understandably so, Kosky’s direction is often vulgar, poking at topics traditionally considered to be sensitive. This will surely polarise audiences. Certainly, a number of people walked out on opening night, mumbling indignantly. Neither the omnipresent Jewish noses nor the fart-noises will be to everyone’s taste. The severed nose, whether small or enlarged, has strong sexual connotations, and the phallic reference to it is made extremely (and perhaps unnecessarily) obvious in the third act, after Kovalev has been undressed and violated – a scene, which both musically and visually offers more than a subtle nod to the rape scene in the composer’s next opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (1934).
Every person on stage wears a prosthetic nose – apart from poor clue- and noseless Kovalev, played and sung by Austrian baritone Martin Winkler. He was one of three singers reprising their roles from the 2016 Covent Garden season (along with John Tomlinson and Alexander Lewis). Winkler’s acting is simply phenomenal, some of the best I ever have seen on an opera stage. Every detail of his role is judiciously worked out and brilliantly executed. The opening minutes of the opera – with Winkler and veteran singer Tomlinson as the barber – are a delight in singing and acting.
Meanwhile, the audience gets its first taste of the director’s predilection for the grotesque – Sweeney Todd meeting Stephen King’s clown from It. Another Kosky masterstroke, and another short divider between scenes, comes after the large and rowdy scene: Kovalev’s nonsensical muttering, grunting, giggling, stammering, and facial contortions to the accompaniment of a single snare drum as he stands alone at the front of the stage. You have to be there to appreciate it – these few minutes alone are worth the admission price.
Of the other singers, Kanen Breen is acrobatic both in his singing and his acting in the role of the District Inspector, offering one of his best performances. Antoinette Halloran excels as the grumpy wife, Praskovia Osipovna, who finds the offending nose in her bread dough, and she sings her rapid, crisp syllables on the way to that famously long high C, topped by an even higher note a little later. The roles performed by Jacqueline Dark and Warwick Fyfe were too small for these excellent singers to fully demonstrate their talent.
It is not possible to discuss all eighty characters and the many singers, who, while doubling and tripling roles, bring them to life on stage. They are, in no particular order: Sian Pendry, Gennadi Dubinsky, Adrian Tamburini, Anthony Mackey, Simon Meadows, Tom Hamilton, Malcolm Ede, Ryan Sharp, Virgilio Marino, Graeme Macfarlane, Benjamin Rasheed, Gregory Brown, Dean Bassett, Martin Buckingham, Brad Cooper, and Jonathan McCauley.
The Nose – beguiling visually as well as musically – was a brilliant performance. Indeed, excellent seemed to be the new average.
The Nose (Opera Australia), directed by Barrie Kosky, continues at The Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House, until 3 March 2018. Performance attended: 21 February.
ABR Arts is generously supported by The Ian Potter Foundation and The ABR Patrons.