Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
February 21, 2018

With larger-than-life tap-dancing noses, a seething city full of colourful citizens, a slapstick, Keystone Cops police force, gymnastic vocal lines and a spiky score – not to mention a few digs at more frequently performed canon operas – Barrie Kosky’s dazzling production of Dmitri Shostakovich’s first opera may put a few noses out of joint.

One of the many, many tragedies of Soviet rule in Russia in the 20th century was the stifling of Dmitri Shostakovich’s career as an opera composer. His second opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, which premiered in 1934, triggered an avalanche of dangerous official condemnation that would shape the rest of his career as a composer – he never wrote another opera.

The NoseMartin Winkler and Sir John Tomlinson in Opera Australia’s The Nose. Photos © Prudence Upton

But before Lady Macbeth, Shostakovich wrote The Nose in 1927-28 when the 20-year-old composer was flexing his musical muscles in a period of (relative) freedom between the revolutions of 1917 and the Great Terror of the 1930s. The score is a fascinating collage of styles and influences that were filtering into Russia at the time (comparisons have been drawn to Berg’s Wozzeck, premiered in 1925, which also opens with a shaving scene). And with 80-odd named parts, The Nose was an audacious foray into the world of opera for a composer fresh out of university. In his Shostakovich biography, Ian MacDonald describes the opera as “nothing if not an exercise in excess”.

It was The Nose that Australian director Kosky chose to make his debut at London’s Royal Opera House in 2016, the production – which premiered in Sydney last night – a co-production by ROH, Opera Australia and Kosky’s own Komische Oper Berlin. It’s a good fit – Kosky doesn’t so much tame Shostakovich’s excess in this visually spectacular production as harness it, ride it and whip it into a frenzy, all the while giving it a carefully crafted visual unity.

The Nose’s plot is based on the satirical Nikolai Gogol story of the same name, but it’s fleshed out with bits and pieces from Gogol’s other works – including The Overcoat and Diary of a Madman – and a whiff of Dostoyevsky. The setup is simple: bureaucrat Platon Kuzmitch Kovalev wakes up one morning to find his nose is missing. The opera unfolds in a series of episodes as Kovalev hunts for his peripatetic proboscis (which now, to his chagrin, outranks him) through the streets of St Petersburg, suffering the ridicule and indifference of the wider community and floundering without the social standing he has come to rely on.

The Nose, Opera AustraliaMartin Winkler and the cast of Opera Australia’s The Nose

Shostakovich wrote The Nose – with fellow librettists Yevgeny Zamyatin, Georgy Ionin and Alexander Preis – at a time when Russian society was intensely focused on the physical body (the Russian government was busy discrediting the idea of a spiritual existence that might exist after death). Austrian bass-baritone Martin Winkler wears this physicality on his sleeve as Kovalev, in a performance combining virtuosic vocals with physical comedy and a kind of moist, flatulent self-obsession that picks up and amplifies the body humour in Shostakovich’s score. Reviewing The Nose in London for Limelight, Howard Shepherdson has already made the Mr Bean comparison, but Winkler’s comedy – and indeed the humour of the whole production – takes us to a much darker place as he’s suddenly cast out of the place in society he took for granted. While the pompous Kovalev isn’t exactly a likeable character, he still manages to inspire pity in a world where difference is punished and scorned by the mob – the exaggerated noses of his fellow citizens devastatingly ram home his own sudden inadequacy. His self-pitying aria, alone in his room, is a rare moment of lyricism in an otherwise relentlessly rhythmic opera and Winkler projects David Poutney’s English translation with crisp clarity.

Revered British bass Sir John Tomlinson brings a rich, vocal surety and sense of fun to barber Ivan Iakolevitch (and the other roles he sings), both Winkler and Tomlinson veterans of this production – their confident performances do much to bind together the chaos. Antoinette Halloran as Praskovia Osipovna brings a tough-as-nails soprano to Ivan Iakolevitch’s wife, pounding dough while her husband is literally under the table.

The Nose, Opera AustraliaJacqueline Dark and the cast of Opera Australia’s The Nose

Kanen Breen’s tenor voice leaps athletically as the District Police Inspector while Jacqueline Dark soars madly as the Countess and Eva Kong and Sian Pendry are a shrill, high-intensity mother-daughter pair decked out in garish colours. Italian-Australian tenor Virgilio Marino puts in a fine turn as Kovalev’s servant (and Winkler’s comedic sparring partner), Ivan. Every singer but Winkler juggles multiple parts.

Tenor Alexander Lewis pings in his high register, singing in the Cathedral (in Shostakovich’s score, this part is sung by the Nose itself – one of several “dramaturgical slip-ups” by the young composer, according to Kosky, who has Lewis as a bystander). In Kosky’s hands the Cathedral scene becomes one of wailing grief rather than religious ecstasy.

The Nose, Opera AustraliaEva Kong and Sian Pendry in Opera Australia’s The Nose

Andrea Molino (who has just been nominated for a Green Room Award for his work on King Roger last year) leads the orchestra deftly through the fiendish score – which plumbs atonality, folk music, polkas, polyphony and more – coaxing plenty of warmth from music that could easily become cold and brittle. There were moments, however, when the frenzy in the pit, and on stage, sometimes overwhelmed the clarity of the vocal parts, so while this production is sung in English, the surtitles are still necessary. But there are wonderful wind and brass lines, and the percussion section is outstanding – the flexatone in the final moments is dreamily sublime.

But it’s as much the visual experience that makes this production work. The dance number that accompanies the ringing percussion Interlude (lodged between two hangover scenes in the first act) is delightfully and bizarrely choreographed by Otto Pichler, not to mention the fantastic Russian scarves and corsets. Kosky’s inserted tap-dancing noses sequence – led by a swaggering younger nose – which gives the orchestra, and the audience, a breather, is also a highlight. The director’s attention to the aesthetic of the whole is impeccable – as in his Saul, which played at the Adelaide Festival last year, there are some breathtaking, populous tableaux full of vividly rendered characters. He deftly handles the vast cast on Kraus Grünberg’s relatively stark set (it’s also his crisp lighting), and creates a world simultaneously comic and terrifying.

The Nose, Opera AustraliaOpera Australia’s The Nose

While Kosky’s direction ties together the many elements to create a wonderfully absurd and seething whole, there is still a sense that The Nose is by a young Shostakovich who hasn’t quite mastered the taut attention to structure we see in his later works. Though there is a rambling feel to the piece (that Kosky embraces and makes a feature) The Nose provides a window into the musical world of Shostakovich just as his career was taking off and before the weight of Soviet oppression bore down on him personally, as well as a hint at what might have been had things turned out differently.

The Nose pokes fun at the hierarchies and pretensions of the St Petersburg nouveau riche, but it also pokes fun at opera itself (it’s sometimes been described as an anti-opera). Kosky takes the 90-year-old work’s spirit of lampooning operatic convention and gives it a contemporary and local twist, skewering the opera-goers who may prefer some of Opera Australia’s other 2018 offerings, such as La Traviata next week, or Evita later in the year.

While it has been wonderful to see some lesser known works hit the mainstage at Opera Australia in recent years – including King Roger last year and The Love for Three Oranges the year before – The Nose is perhaps the most adventurous. This is an opera that takes you for a ride – and a wild one at that – but for all the nightmare, the isolation, disgust and ridicule at the heart of this work (in his diary Prokofiev called it “a communal moan”), Kosky’s production imbues The Nose with a sense of joy. The Nose is a finely choreographed celebration of the absurd, the grotesque, the different and the weird.

Opera Australia’s The Nose is at the Sydney Opera House until March 3


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