It’s entirely possible that the greatest sight at a London theatre this year is that of a chorus line of 13 giant noses, tap dancing across the stage of the Royal Opera House.
It might not be what many Covent Garden aficionados expect, but the reception at last night’s premiere of a new production of Shostakovich’s The Nose would suggest that, whatever some of the more culturally po-faced might imagine, opera goers in London enjoy a farce as much as anyone else.
Shostakovich’s first opera, completed in 1928, is just bonkers.
But there’s a simple reason for that – because it is based on Gogol’s short story of the same name, which is, err, three stops short of Upminster.
To precis: Kovalev is a pompous bureaucratic who wakes up to find that he has lost his nose. Looking for it, he finds that it has become rather larger and, indeed, overtaken him in terms of social standing.
His nose does not want to return to its former position. The police are no help. He advertises with a local paper after being ridiculed by the journalists – but then the nose itself gets caught up with populist sentiment and is almost lynched, before being returned to Kovalev.
Initially, he cannot re-attach it, but that happens miraculously over night. And that's it – or maybe not.
|A chorus line of tap dancing, err, noses|
There is neither logic nor sense here – it is entirely surreal. And entirely hilarious.
Or is it?
The scene I mentioned at the top is one that director Barrie Kosky has inserted into the piece, but it’s a perfect fit. The audience absolutely fell about.
Kosky is currently the artistic director go the Komische Oper in Berlin and has something of a reputation of being an operatic enfente terrible.
In this, his ROH debut, he proves his maxim that no movement is ever pointless and presents the house with a wonderful first production of the piece. There is so much movement – but none is simply indulgent.
Now it flags in the middle (the whole is just over two hours, with no interval) – but that’s less Kosky and more the young composer. However, so much else is good that one forgets that by the end.
The house band, under Ingo Metzmacher, is first rate with a varied score, from very modern (at the time) to folk and conventionally melodic, – it even includes a balalaika accompaniment to one song from Ivan, Kovalev’s servant, delightfully sung here by tenor Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (making his ROH debut).
|Martin Winkler as Kovalev|
David Pountney’s translation to English helps to make it an immediate feel, and just adds enough to give us a sense of the transgressive nature of the work that the first audiences must have felt.
It’s a superb ensemble cast, but special mentions go to renowned buffo performer Martin Winkle in the role of Kovalev, while Sir John Tomlinson as Kovalev’s barber reminds us (should we need it) just what a great bass he is – and how he really can still do it, vocally and in terms of the acting.
There are moments when you feel that Kosky was channelling the Weimar era of his now home city of Berlin – but that works well here, along with Russian Keystone cops and corruption at all levels, because we’re looking at a decaying, corrupt society. Yet within the church scene, before Kovalev challenges his wayward nose, it is both musically and emotionally beautiful and powerful.
And ultimately, beneath the farce, there is a sense – and it is a sense, but this is part of what I think makes the production so good – of both the vodka-soaked Russian tragedy, and indeed, the perverse insanity that threatens even now to engulf us all.
The obvious satire nods to a decaying society obsessed with the insignificant; to social standing and form, even as the pillars of that society crumble corruptly around it.
I would also like to take this opportunity to point out that, while I am now a friend of the ROH, our tickets – with fab view and even fabber sound – were under £30 each. The ROH is NOT beyond the pocket of all but a few in this country.
Anyway, to find out more about The Nose and more, visit www.roh.org.uk.