“Why would anyone write an opera about a nose?” asked the Presenter (Antoinette Halloran) towards the conclusion of the performance. Well, Dmitri Shostakovich did. He wrote an opera called The Nose in 1927, when he was only 20, in response to calls for the newly nationalised Soviet opera houses to update their repertoires with contemporary, topical works.
Shostakovich obviously had great fun experimenting with orchestral and vocal sounds in the process and incorporated elements of music hall and circus as well as an eclectic mash-up of musical and theatrical styles including folk music, popular song and atonality in his work.
Drawing on a short story by Gogol for his libretto, The Nose follows the surreal adventures of an unfortunate public servant, Kovalev (Martin Winkler), whose nose is inadvertently shaved off by his careless barber, Iakolevitch (Sir John Tomlinson). When Kovalev discovers that his nose is missing, he embarks on a series of surreal adventures in an effort to recover it.
Director, Barrie Kosky has seized on the basic ridiculousness of Shostakovich’s premise, to have his own fun creating a riotous wet-dream of a production to push the boundaries even further, adding chorus lines of bearded dancing girls and tap-dancing noses to the parade of wildly improbable, hilarious characters,
Kosky’s production is playful, spectacular, deliciously subversive, and very funny. Klaus Grunberg’s impressive grey setting provides the perfect foil for Buki Shiff’s extraordinary and colourful costume designs. Choreographer, Otto Pichler has dreamed up some weird and wonderful choreography which perfectly complements Kosky’s idiosyncratic direction.
A co-production with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and Berlin’s Komische Oper, The Nose requires a cast of more than 20 principal singers, 80 named solo parts, a chorus of singers and dancers and considerable orchestral forces, and while the production makes considerable demands on its participants, the cast embrace them obvious relish.
Opera Australia has pulled out the big guns for the season, providing an all-star Australian cast, together with some of the original London cast, including Martin Winkler as the unfortunate Kovalev and Sir John Tomlinson as the careless barber, Iakolevitch. Alexander Lewis, who made such an impression earlier this year in The Merry Widow, confirms that impression performing, among other characters, the Nose itself, the role he originated in the original London production.
Apart from Winkler as Kovalev, Jacqueline Dark as the red-wigged Countess, and Clifford Plumpton as the Cabby, everyone else plays multiple roles. Although this tends to become a little confusing as the opera progresses, any confusion quickly dissipates as the action becomes more and more preposterous.
Sian Pendry and Eva Kong, startlingly costumed as Podtotschina and her daughter, Antoinette Halloran, unrecognisable as the vicious Praskovia Osipovna who discovers the nose in her bread mixture, Kanen Breen as the district Police Inspector, and Gennadi Dubinsky, Adrian Tamburini, Warwick Fyfe , Benjamin Rasheed, Annabelle Chaffey and Dean Bassett, all revelling in a variety of bizarre characterisations, impress with their ability to sing complex harmonies, while nailing the exaggerated acting style required.
Having a penis attached to his face is only one of the endless indignities endured by Martin Winkler’s hapless Kovalev, in a remarkable performance in which his superb singing combined with an innate ability to imbue his character with unexpected humanity, insured that Kovalev remained the central focus amid the chaos surrounding him.
Similarly impressive was the way, in a number of roles, Sir John Tomlinson drew on his charismatic stage presence and consummate vocal skills to underline his complete mastery of Shostakovich’s extraordinary vocal colorations.
While the spectacular visual components of the production sometimes threatened to distract from the music, another remarkable aspect of Kosky’s direction was the attention he paid to ensuring that the impetus for all the action was driven by Shostakovich’s remarkable score which was given a thrilling performance by the Opera Australia Orchestra responding to the inspired direction of Maestro Molino.
Presented for a very limited number of performances, The Nose provides an extraordinary and memorable operatic experience. While not everyone who sees it will enjoy the experience, for most, the rare opportunity to experience this brilliant realisation of an entertaining and rarely performed opera, is one to cherish for a lifetime. Thank you Opera Australia.
Joan Sutherland Theatre – Sydney Opera House, Bennelong Point, Sydney
Performance: Wednesday 21 February 2018 – 7.30pm
Season continues to 3 March 2018
Information and Bookings: www.opera.org.au
Image: Sir John Tomlinson, Martin Winkler and ensemble in Opera Australia’s 2018 production of The Nose at the Sydney Opera House – photo by Prudence Upton
Review: Bill Stephens OAM