If you have ever wanted to watch an opera wherein a chorus line of giant noses tap-dance, and in which the English translation of the libretto requires the singing of the term “de-nose-ification”… then this is the show for you.
Never one to court easy audience acceptance nor eschew an oblique bit of symbolism, the once-infamous, now internationally famous expat director Barrie Kosky is bringing his 2016 co-production between Covent Garden and Opera Australia “home”, even if he’s unlikely to be quoting Peter Allen by way of Qantas any time soon. Already a rousing success in London, if the opening night crowd here was anything to go by, it is likely to be a smash hit at the Sydney Opera House as well.
That is… as long as you don’t ask my theatre companion for the evening, who audibly groaned, sighed and tutted throughout the show, at least when he wasn’t falling asleep. I have no doubt that, had the opera been performed with an interval, he would have chosen to leave. Something which, if I’m not mistaken, I did spy a few people actually doing so here and there mid-show. Whether eliciting rapturous applause or exasperated walk-outs, it would seem that Kosky has clearly not lost his touch for galvanizing strong responses in Sydney audiences.
If anything, I found my own response uncharacteristically in the middle-ground, if not exactly ambivalent. While largely enjoying the music, spectacle and high production values, as well as often being especially amused by the sheer absurdity of the narrative, I did nevertheless find the show frequently lagged and felt overlong, which is an unfortunate statement about an opera short enough to be staged without any intermission.
The show is aggressively surreal, even seemingly nonsensical at points, but for once the bizarre dramatic insanity cannot be entirely laid at Kosky’s feet, considering the choice of material. Twenty-four year-old Shostakovich’s first opera, The Nose is a 1930 adaptation of the famously quirky 1836 short story of the same name by Gogol. Celebrated by St. Petersburg natives for its local setting, it concerns the tale of Kovalev, a pompous civil servant who awakes one day to the horrific discovery that his nose is missing, only for it to inexplicably turn up inside a loaf of bread made by the wife of his barber.
As Kovalev is wracked by paranoia and indignation that his prospects of elevation from his middling social status will be adversely effected by his immaculate mutilation, his horror and anxiety are exponentially compounded when he discovers that his disembodied nose is now living its own independent life about town. Worse, in the short time it has been operating without him, Kovalev’s nose has actually managed to rise above him in social rank and, to add insult to injury, is now far better dressed.
If none of that makes any sense, it’s not really supposed to. Or rather, it is, but only to a point. Part social satire, part strange thought-experiment with anticipatory echoes of Dadaism, magic realism, Kafkaesque feakouts and Freudian nightmares, Gogol’s darkly comedic story shows characters from a society in the throes of an obsession with social positioning due to a highly regulated “Table of Ranks” instituted by Peter the Great.
The idea of a man more distraught by the social implications of spontaneous deformity than his own personal discomfort is heightened to greater extremes by the notion that his autonomous former piece of anatomy has taken on human dimensions and characteristics, sufficient to eclipse him. It speaks volumes about Kovalev’s sense of inadequacy, and it should come as no surprise that there are popular alternate readings of the tale. For example, some infer that a different body part with a mind of its own may have been intended, but that is just one of many interpretations.
Given Kosky’s reputation today as one of the world’s most lauded opera directors and his well-established tastes for the bizarre and outrageous, it should come as no surprise that he has been wanting to direct this opera for decades. Not only for the original Gogol story, but also for the almost equally unusual adaptation and composition by Shostakovich, presenting an ambitious mix of musical genres and influences, as well as drawing elements from other Gogol writings as well as Dostoyevsky to expand the story for operatic staging.
Of course Shostakovich himself had a life and career that could almost have been penned by Gogol as well, with his music falling in and out of favour with Stalinist authorities to the extent that at points he actively expected to be arrested and purged by the state’s secret police. It is a life story one can’t help but imagine may have held a measure of interest to Kosky when conceiving of his bold staging for this frequently abstruse opera.
As always, the director remains the master of the lush tableau and unexpected choreography, as much as he is known for deploying the grotesque and subversive. The bald, pasty-faced Kovalev as portrayed here by Martin Winkler wanders from pillar to post through a nightmarish vision of opulent, often decadent St. Petersburg, harangued by Keystone Cops-esque soldiers, a bevy of bearded bawds, disinterested newspapermen, snobby funeral mourners, and unwanted potential betrothals and their mothers. It is a thrilling, queasy, intermittently dull yet frequently hilarious romp through a stained fantasia of a society seemingly in the process of eating its own tail.
When the noses appear, however, this is when things really take off. This variously comes in the form of small props, tiny puppets, or large mascot-style costumes with dancing legs protruding from the nostrils to allow olfactory ambulation. Just as in Gogol’s story, the renegade schnozz takes on any size it wants, as the scene requires. While the hilarious tap-dancing line of multiple noses has already become something of an emblematic image for the production, for me the more memorable scene comes when Kovalev finally regains his missing honker and repeatedly attempts to reattach it. His nose repeatedly falls off his face again and again, with a visceral impact and jet-black humour that recalls the body horror of Cronenberg films, to great effect.
For anyone wanting a more conventional opera, or even an absurdist work with a relatively coherent plot, The Nose is more likely to leave you sniffing with bewilderment. Yet for those willing to drop the theatrical brown acid and ride out the trip, this is a production that is sure to provide memorable flashbacks in years to come.
Opera Australia presents
by Dimitri Shostakovich
Director Barrie Kosky
Venue: Joan Sutherland Theatre | Sydney Opera House NSW
Dates: 21 Feb – 3 March 2018
Tickets: from $46
Bookings: (02) 9318 8200 | www.opera.org.au