THE NOSE, Opera Australia at the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House, 21 February-3 March 2018. Photography by Prudence Upton: above - Martin Winkler and friends; below - Kanen Breen and co; below again: John Tomlinson, Martin Winkler etc
This production of Dmitri Shostakovich’s first opera (written when he was just 20) arrives in Sydney after giant dancing noses at last year’s season launch – and sheafs of glowing reviews. It’s also former enfant terrible-now-acclaimed artist Barrie Kosky’s first time back at Opera Australia in two decades.
And it’s a classic Kosky choice for his return: an absurdist comedy, somewhat obscure, impeccable intellectual credentials, subtle and not so subtle politics, and “challenging" music. To which he’s added the visual ingredients that used to give subscribers the willies, symbolised by a big droopy penis in place of a nose. At heart you have to suspect the “hottest property amongst contemporary opera directors” (a London critic) still wants to provoke apoplexy in Sydney's premium seats.
The composer took a short story by Gogol that satirised Tsarist Russian society and adapted it for the stage. Shostakovich wrote the score in a tearing hurry of inspirations, but by the time it was seen in Moscow in 1930, The Nose was also seen by some, including Stalin and the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians, to be thumbing its proboscis at the proletariat itself. After its first season, The Nose wasn’t seen again in Russia until the 1970s.
The piece was chosen by Kosky for his Covent Garden debut because he had stipulated he didn’t want to re-do a standard masterpiece (a la Baz Luhrmann and La Boheme, for instance). Rather he wanted to make a work unburdened by expectation. Together with set, costume and lighting designer Klaus Grünberg and choreographer Otto Pichler, he’s certainly done that.
The story is both simple and simply ridiculous and begins with two short scenes. One morning Kovalev, a minor public servant (Martin Winkler) whose pomposity is a given, attends barber Ivan Iakolevitch (David Tomlinson) for a shave. Next morning, when Iakolevitch’s wife, Praskovya Ossipovna (Antoinette Halloran) is making bread, they discover a nose in the dough.
Later, while Ivan Iakolevitch is out and about trying to ditch the organ, he is spotted by the District Police Inspector (Kanen Breen). He’s suspicious in a manner reminiscent of Inspector Clouseau-meets-Florence Foster Jenkins. Meanwhile, Kovalev wakes up with a hangover and after a desultory attempt to hump his clerk Ivan (Virgilio Marino) he discovers his nose is missing.
The nose (Alexander Lewis), meanwhile, is in no hurry to resume administrative sniffing duties. He rebuffs Kovalev’s pleas when they run into each other at a memorial service. Kovalev decides to put an ad in the newspaper at the same time another is being placed for the Countess’s (Jacqueline Dark) lost poodle. The rest of the story is as logical as the above and plays out in dazzling set pieces and choruses of clerks, cops, eunuchs, a travel agent, acquaintances, students and other less-than-Stalinist townsfolk. (The pseudo-Edwardian circus costumes are spectacular.)
The thing is, one can look for deeper meanings – the director has previously said the piece is, “about fear and loss and paranoia, about body parts and sexuality and castration,” – but at the same time, the production goes out of its way to obscure such possibilities in an hour and 50 minutes of extended hanky-panky, pelvic thrusts and mischief. The monochromatic setting – of a circular dais contained within a lens-like frame, occasionally enhanced with bicyclised tables, suspended lights and eye-catching tableaux – focuses attention at all times on the company. And what a company!
The tightly choreographed and individualised movement of each character within the whole is exceptional and like Saul, Kosky’s contribution to last year’s Adelaide Festival, it’s a lavish visual feast. The Nose lacks Saul’s inherent sophistication, however, and that’s probably because Handel was a mature and successful composer when he wrote the oratorio and Shostakovich was not – yet. Nevertheless, The Nose is a fascinating composition.
Martin Winkler is a consummate clown and singer as the egregious pen-pusher and John Tomlinson’s rich, true bass is complemented by versatile comic acting. As he does on so many occasions, Kanen Breen walks away with any scene in which he appears and has more opportunities than he did in 2017’s Saul. Virgilio Marino is another scene thief and audience-pleaser as Ivan and four other small parts.
The orchestra, under Andrea Molino, is sharp, energetic and surely galvanised by one of the most eclectic scores encountered in a long time. The diversity of the music ranges from exquisite choral passages, to extended dissonance – vocal and instrumental; to brief homages to Stravinsky and Berg, snatches of folk tunes, burlesque and free jazz-like percussion breaks. Shostakovich was determined to be different – a Cubist musician when Italianate romanticism was still in the public’s ears. It’s exciting in that context and very well realised in the pit.
The Nose is also made a little tricky on the ears, however, because each member of the cast wears a large nose and it’s a surprisingly efficient word distorter. Nevertheless, it’s sung in English, in David Pountney’s new translation, and with the surtitles and some detective work, the libretto makes as least as much sense as the story!
Funnily enough, at a time when there is growing consciousness in Sydney of queer theatre – what it is, how it’s made and what it means – The Nose is an old-fashioned gay-blokey pub show (with a massive budget). There are hipster-bearded dancers in floral bustiers and even the chorus of tap-dancing noses is hairy-leggedly male. A fair bit of the action too is oddly pre-#metoo. The women are adjuncts to the action in every way – even Jacqui Dark and Antoinette Halloran – and that’s saying something.
The opening night audience adored The Nose. It’s hellaciously good to look at and there’s more creativity in one scene than in many entire productions. For me, the music was the unexpected highlight even as I enjoyed the spectacle. Nonetheless, it did seem that the director was trying just as too hard as Shostakovich did back in 1930. Most definitely worth seeing, however, cos no one else does work like this.