The Nose, Royal Opera, ROH, Covent Garden, October 2016Posted on 21 October 2016
They say it’s not over until the fat lady sings, but in this case the final moment is the sneeze, which for a man who lost his nose is the true test of recovery.
It all starts with the sound of the wonderful John Tomlinson as the barber sharpening his razor on a leather strap. He reappears later as the newspaper editor reluctant to accept an advertisement about a lost nose, later still as the physician who is sadly unable to help despite the nose having now been found, and finally as the barber again, ready to shave the man whose nose originally appeared in the barber’s wife’s freshly baked bread.
It’s a wacky 1830s story by Gogol, elaborated by the 21-year old Shostakovich, though not staged until a year and a half later in January 1930, by which time the cultural climate had changed for the worse against such avant garde work, and so-called ‘proletarian’ critics panned it. The opera was only rehabilitated by the Soviet Union in 1974, though political allegory it is not, having more in common with Monty Python, Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. All three resonated in various aspects of Barrie Kosky’s irreverent production, appropriately sung in David Pountney’s spicy translation, with colourful costumes by Buki Shiff whose style may be familiar to those who saw Covent Garden’s La Calisto in 2008.
The staging is for the most part huge fun, with nutty choreography by Otto Pichler for the policemen, tap dancing noses and others, along with bearded ladies and all manner of extraordinary characters. It is all quite mad, but fits the score by a rambunctious young composer, eager to show off his enormous talents. Under the baton of Ingo Metzmacher the orchestra pulsates with a profusion of rhythmic percussion, brass and woodwind, combined with quiet moments and occasional silences, as for the tap dance which elicited spontaneous applause.
This is a Rabelaisian work using a large orchestra that overflows the pit into the side stalls circle, and boasts over 70 sung roles, with some performers taking as many as five. They formed a great team, headed by Martin Winkler as the principal character, Platon Kuzmitch Kovalov. He delivers a tour de force of superb acting and singing, eager and at times morose or even weepy, belying the philosophical pretensions of his first name.
The New York Met staged this opera for the first time in 2010, though Barrie Kosky’s production here is more surreal. Two hours of absurdity with no interval, but it hooks you, and though the spoken summary, elegantly delivered by Rosie Aldridge, seems like the end — wait for the sneeze!
Performances of this co-production with Komische Oper Berlin and Opera Australia continue on various dates until November 9, with a BBC Radio 3 broadcast on December 31 at 6:30 pm — for details click here.