Concert, DVD, Film & Theatre Reviews 46


Kovalov (Martin Winkler, centre) confronts a voiceless Nose at the funeral

The Nose in London
Barrie Kosky’s production at the Royal Opera House
Royal Opera House, London*
Ingo Metzmacher (conductor), Barrie Kosky (director)
20 October–9 November 2016 (six performances)
* The complete production can be viewed on the Royal Opera House’s YouTube channel

Barrie Kosky’s production of The Nose marked the first time that opera had appeared on the Royal Opera House’s main stage—not that Kosky took advantage of the space. Klaus Grünberg’s set design included two curved walls in front of the curtain, so that the audience watched most of the action through a circular opening. This, as Kosky explained in a talk a few weeks before the premiere, was intended as a counterweight to the inevitable symbolism of the nose itself. His intention was made more explicit, in the many scenes played on the apron, by having the performers emerge through a carefully placed slit in the curtain.

You could argue that this was a fitting design for a production that would feature spitting, farting, simulated sex, and (for those really slow on the uptake) a minor character whose nose actually was a rubber phallus. Once the joke had worn thin, though, the restricted viewpoint served mainly to create extra distance between the performance and its audience—a serious flaw when telling a story where suspension of disbelief is paramount.

Indeed, the main problem with Kosky’s production was the placement of the action in some realm outside the viewer’s experience. The brilliance of Gogol’s plot lies in the fact that, apart from the Nose’s exploits, nothing is out of the ordinary. Kovalov’s world is one in which Gogol’s readers would have felt at home. Kosky, by contrast, filled his production with surreal elements: bearded dancers in tutus, bits of the set being wheeled around on tricycles, “spontaneous” interruptions and breakages of the fourth wall. At its worst moments, it felt like off-brand Monty Python—and The Nose, with its themes of embarrassment and status anxiety, needs more of a Fawlty Towers treatment.

Given this determined detachment from reality, it is not surprising that Kosky’s production (unlike William Kentridge’s 2013 version for the Metropolitan Opera) made no allusion to the political climate in which Shostakovich worked, or to his later troubles. Even when the crowd turned on and nearly lynched the Nose in Act Three, this seemed to be no more than an overspill of general zaniness.

The performers sometimes managed to make up for the production, particularly in simpler scenes where the focus was on the interaction of a few characters, such as the opening scene in Ivan Yakovlevich’s barber shop, Kovalov’s attempt to place an advert in the newspaper, and his consultation with the doctor. Most of the credit for these can go to just two singers, since the barber, the newspaper clerk, and the doctor were all played by John Tomlinson. He gave a delightfully deadpan performance in the latter two roles, and in the first scene he wielded his razor with a blend of playfulness and menace that foreshadowed events to come (though perhaps he could have acted more alarmed in the scene where he discovered the nose in his wife’s bread dough). As for the star of the show, Martin Winkler portrayed Kovalov with just the right level of ridiculous pomposity (he was helped here by David Pountney’s new English translation of the libretto, in which he lamented that his “denosification” was ridiculous “in this age of reason.”) Yet he also aroused genuine sympathy when he sobbed himself to sleep at the end of Act Two.

The rest of the cast was a mixed bag. I had last seen Rosie Aldridge as Aksinya in Dmitri Tcherniakov’s production of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk for the English National Opera in 2015 (reviewed in DSCH 44). At the time, I had thought the weirdly quotidian nature of that production’s sexual assault scene was due to Tcherniakov’s decision to stage it like a Rihanna video; but now that I’ve seen Aldridge’s strikingly unferocious portrayal of Praskovya Ossipovna, I think she may simply not convey outrage very well. (Aldridge turned up again in Act Three as the bubliki seller, who had been changed into a prostitute in this version for no reason that I could figure out—hence the onstage sex mentioned earlier.) Alexander Kravets gave an annoyingly pantomimish performance as the District Police Inspector. More successful was Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, who was genuinely funny and camp as Ivan the servant (when called by Kovalov, he got a round of applause by drawing out his answering “Here!” to grandiose lengths). Ingo Metzmacher conducted an exuberant performance of the score, with an orchestra greatly expanded from Shostakovich’s original to fill the acoustic space at Covent Garden.

And what about the Nose itself? Kosky solved the problem of portraying its loss quite cleverly by having everyone in the cast except Winkler wear a large false one. But the Nose’s independent existence was depicted less successfully. This was not the fault of the young dancer wearing the giant nose costume (Ilan Galkoff, in the performance I saw; Harrison Noble played the role on alternate nights). Kosky and costume designer Buki Shiff robbed Kovalov’s encounters with his nose of satirical potential by, first, not giving the Nose any clothing (thus making Kovalov’s lines about being intimidated by its epaulettes nonsensical); and second, taking away the Nose’s sung lines and giving them to a bystander (Alexander Lewis, in a well-sung role). At first, I genuinely could not work out whether Lewis was supposed to be a representation of the Nose’s consciousness or an entirely separate character, but the programme credited him as “Angry Man in the Cathedral,” so I guess it was the latter. Between Acts Two and Three, a row of child dancers in identical nose costumes did a tap-dance routine unaccompanied by music (one of several interpolations that extended the running time by nearly half an hour). While this brought down the house, it seemed pointless in the larger context of the opera.

Kosky, who is Jewish, said in his talk that he had modelled the nose on anti-Semitic Nazi caricatures, but the only other allusion to Jewishness in the production was the brief appearance in Act Three of a newspaper seller telling borscht-belt jokes in an exaggerated New York accent. This was one of many loose ends in a production that seemed frustratingly to be both everywhere and nowhere, and never brought its subject close enough.

Laura Del Col Brown