Barrie Kosky Brings Madcap Mayhem to The Nose at Covent Garden

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Shostakovich, The Nose: Soloists, Royal Opera Chorus, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Ingo Metzmacher. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 20.10.2016. (JPr)

Barrie Kosky’s The Nose (c) Bill Cooper

Platon Kuzmitch Kovalov – Martin Winkler
Ivan Iakovlevitch/Clerk/Doctor – John Tomlinson
Ossipovna/Vendor – Rosie Aldridge
District Inspector – Alexander Kravets
Angry Man in the Cathedral – Alexander Lewis
Ivan – Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke
Iaryshkin – Peter Bronder
Old Countess – Susan Bickley
Pelageya Podtotshina – Helene Schneiderman
Podtotshina’s daughter – Ailish Tynan
Ensemble: Paul Carey Jones, Alasdair Elliott, Alan Ewing, Hubert Francis, Sion Goronwy, Njabulo Madlala, Charbel Mattar, Andrew O’Connor, Samuel Sakker, Michael J Scott, Nicholas Sharratt, David Shipley, Jeremy White, Simon Wilding & Yuriy Yurchuk

Director – Barrie Kosky
Set and lighting designer- Klaus Grünberg
Costume designer – Buki Shiff
Choreographer- Otto Pichler
Translator – David Pountney

I have been whining too much lately about how often I have seen and heard operas and other musical works, so it was good to be at the first performance of something at the Royal Opera House. My first reaction was that I was in the wrong theatre for this – as a Russian opera performed in an English translation – should have been put on by English National Opera. These two London companies need their separate identities and Shostakovich’s The Nose should have been in the original language with surtitles at Covent Garden. Just a thought?

Shostakovich completed The Nose in 1928 when only 20 and it received a few performances in Leningrad in 1930. One official Soviet critic denounced it as ‘an anarchist’s hand grenade’ whilst another called this deliberately absurd, satirical, piece ‘a childish attempt to flabbergast the audience’. The opera’s premiere coincided with Josef Stalin planning to bring the arts in the Soviet Union under his tyrannical totalitarian control.

Gogol’s 1836 tale sends up the self-importance of petty bureaucrats. His antihero, Kovalov, a collegiate assessor, wakes up one morning to find his nose gone: possibly the victim of the slip of a razor by Kovalov’s drunk and smelly barber, Iakovlevitch. The Nose (or ‘Nosey’ as often referred to here) has swollen to human size and now has a somewhat megalomaniacal life of its own. The Nose is a state councillor which mean it has attained a bureaucratic rank higher than Kovalov and is also something of a Don Juan. A confused Kovalov sets off in pursuit of the Nose but cannot persuade a newspaper office or a corrupt chief of police – or anyone for that matter – to take his predicament seriously. Ultimately Kovalov succeeds in having the Nose put back in its place, literally, as well as figuratively.

Because Gogol was one of his favourite writers, Shostakovich retained as much of the original language in the libretto he devised with several co-librettists (including Evgeny Zamyatin, author of the dystopian curiosity We). They ransacked dialogue from other works by Gogol to flesh out the brief story and even included a folk song for Kovalov’s long-suffering servant, Ivan, first sung by a character in Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov. The Nose has three acts and an epilogue comprised of ten scenes with 77 roles and a huge cast often with little to actually sing. Both the libretto and the score uses a montage of styles, with abrupt shifts and numerous ‘Keystone Cops’ chase scenes which recall the silent films that Shostakovich much admired – and even accompanied as a pianist during his student years – in the late 1920s.

The reception for The Nose was not helped by the music which is highly atonal and dissonant and we almost never hear the same thing twice. Throw in all the screeching at the extremes of the human voice and all other sound effects and it is not surprising The Nose was effectively banned in Russia for several decades. For example, when we first see Kovalov as he wakes up, the vocal part calls for him to growl, yawn, and belch as the contrabassoon, trombone, xylophone, and violin solo provide a suitable accompaniment. Only in 1974 – and only just before Shostakovich’s death – was The Nose revived in Moscow

Here Barrie Kosky, the much-feted Australian director, considers the opera is actually ‘about fear and loss and paranoia, about bodily parts and sexuality and castration.’ Here he gives everyone a big nose ‘one that morphs an anti-Semitic Nazi cartoon nose with a bit of Barbra Streisand’s nose’ so since Kovalov loses his it ‘makes it look as if he doesn’t have a nose’. Circumcision was my immediate reaction to my first experience of The Nose; it must have been an immature attempt at a commentary of anti-Semitism which was something Shostakovich’s 13th Symphony (subtitled Babi Yar) would denounce in 1962. This is not a great intellectual leap since there are hints in The Nose that Kovalov is not considered a human being worth having sympathy for, having undergone ‘de-nosi-fication’ (as it was described here in David Pountney’s new translation with its copious swear words).

Kosky confesses in a useful programme interview how ‘in my productions I’m always exploring how to combine my love of revue and shabby, end-of-pier vaudeville’. This he achieves and I am already wondering what his new Bayreuth Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg will have in store for us next summer. He takes the surreal, even Kafkaesque, world of Gogol’s story at face value without looking for any hidden meaning. I wonder if we shouldn’t be feeling more than a little sympathy for Kovalov at times. If it had been me, I would have gone for the anarchy of The Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup rather than – as realised by Buki Shiff’s eclectic costumes – the fevered imagination of Terry Gilliam and the Pythons, with a big dollop of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. It is not as if Kosky is being particular original, I suspect, with the huge Nose (portrayed here by a young dancer, Ilan Galkoff) or showing Kovalov with a clown-like red one.

Klaus Grünberg’s single set offers the audience a vast lens through which it can abstractly focus on the absurdities of Gogol’s world. The highlights of Otto Pichler’s choreography are the tribal celebration of the giant totemic Nose on a huge round table, followed by a chorus line of tap-dancing equally huge noses – think Riverdance – which ends with the last one to leave the stage shouting ‘Thank you London!’ Kosky has a huge space to fill and seems determined to fill every bit of it wherever possible. I wonder in fact if The Nose isn’t a much smaller-scale opera than presented here, despite the vast numbers involved on stage and in the pit. Surely Shostakovich could never have imagined quite such a massive orchestra, yet all praise to them for the wonderful account of the cacophonous score – and I am sure I am not the first, nor will be the last, to describe it as that! Ingo Metzmacher’s conducting surely could not be faulted for his commitment to the work and the way he handled the complicated crowd scenes with all the chorus and one-line or two-line bit-part singers.

The Royal Opera performs The Nose without an intermission but it was all so relentless that some respite would have been useful from the sensory overload. The cast ranges from the valiant (those being strangulated by Shostakovich’s highest lines) to the sublime and whilst the energy never flagged, my interest did as time went on. The cast – which included a lot of debutants in their roles or at Covent Garden – was presided over by Martin Winkler as Kovalov who superbly embodied the pompous bureaucratic lackey and a befuddled ‘average joe’. He had a voice with a dark, rich quality which was very reminiscent of a young John Tomlinson.  Maybe this wasn’t entirely a coincidence because the legendary bass – now brawny of tone yet typically commanding the stage whenever on it – was often on stage with him as the barber Iakovlevitch, as well as, the Newspaper Clerk or Doctor. Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke with his extravagantly-held top notes was wonderful as Kovalov’s servant Ivan (first seen top and tail in bed with his ‘master’!) and in multiple other roles. His folk song with a balalaika-strumming real-life Russian doll was another standout moment. It is a remarkable ensemble of soloists, chorus and dancers and I can only mention a few who caught my eye and ear such as Susan Bickley as the old countess; Alexander Kravets as the District Police Inspector; and whilst Rosie Aldridge – who is sorely tested by what the composer gives her as the barber’s wife – provides a delightfully funny non-singing cameo to help bring the show to a close and ruminate on what we have seen using Gogol’s own words. Finally, Kovalov sneezes and guess what??

Jim Pritchard

BBC Radio 3 will broadcast The Nose on Saturday 31 December at 6.30pm.

The Opera Platform will live stream The Nose online on 9 November at

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