Shostakovich's first opera is packed with a young man's enthusiasms and ideas – he was 20; it's like a first album – and is also hugely entertaining, with its vaudevillian episodes and larger than life characters.
So, with his background in musical theatre and his huge hit at Glyndebourne with Handel's Saul behind him, it's hard to think of a director more in tune with the young composer's mad-whackery than Barrie Kosky, making his Royal Opera debut with this whizz-bang production.
In Austrian baritone Martin Winkler, as the unfortunate minor official Kovalov, Kosky has a wonderful clown as well as a great singer: his discovery on waking that his nose has gone, his search for and reunion with it, and the final sense that things will not go right for him for long, are in turn reflected in Klaus Grünberg's set, dominated by circles. What goes around comes around, and both grief and happiness are short-lived in this fast rotating world.
Round tables pedalled in little orbits by their sole occupants, a circular central dias, a vast peep hole into a dizzying world, the seething ring of mourners in the central crossing under an invisible dome of a great cathedral are all part of this circular world. And tripping out of reach is the lost nose itself, an outsize hooter borne on spindly legs, cloned into a troupe of tap dancers in an unaccompanied flight of fancy away from the musical score.
And what a score! Here already are pre-echoes of the great symphonies and string quartets to come, and echoes of the music of the time that Shostakovich knew, above all that of Stravinsky. With its multicoloured orchestration, instant melodies and astringent harmonies, it is at once witty, characterful and confrontational.
No tentative first venture into the world of opera, The Nose, based on an 1836 story by Gogol, has 77 sung roles, and even with doubling that's a big roll call, especially now that singers paid in dollars or euros cost 20 per cent more than they did four months ago. Thank goodness for a reliable roster of homegrown voices, including John Tomlinson and Susan Bickley, with the Irish soprano Ailish Tynan, and other international stars, including the Austrian tenor Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke as Kovalov's servant, Ivan, and the hilarious, baffled, indignant Winkler.
Ingo Metzmacher conducts the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House on great form, from haunting bassoon to serenading balalaika. And the Royal Opera House chorus would come close to stealing the show, as capering cops, city crowds and distracted pressmen, were it not for the dancers – those tapping noses, bearded soubrettes, and assorted hoofers.
The whole, exuberantly dressed circus (costumes by Buki Shiff) pulls off one last great trick with the translation into English by David Pountney. Beat this: of a dispatch from Odessa: "Steppes have been taken..." That's my kind of gag, and this is my kind of show.
Like so many works that are ahead of their time and misunderstood, Shostakovich’s comic opera The Nose got off to a bad start. It was first presented in a concert version in 1929, in Leningrad, now St Petersburg, the year after its was completed by the Russian composer – and he was livid. Performing only the music of an opera without the action was nonsensical, he said. And so, a year later, The Nose was given a proper stage production, but it was reckoned by many to be a shambles. Even so, it limped through 16 performances.
But decades passed before it was given its rightful place in the repertoire, when the conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky came across a copy of the score and in 1974 staged a production in Moscow that was attended by the composer, who would die the following year.
|The Nose review, Royal Opera House
|Royal Opera House, Bow Street, Covent Garden, London, WC2E 9DD | MAP
|Covent Garden (underground)
20 Oct 16 – 09 Nov 16, 7:30 PM – 10:00 PM
|£5 - £100