Eunuch Shostakovich The Nose, Royal Opera House

In  DmitriyShostakovich The Nose at the Royal Opera House, London, it wasn’t just Kovalov’s nose that got cut.  This production was a mutilation, The Nose as Eunuch, the opera stripped of its vital, creative essence.  In Gogol’s original story, Kovalov is a “collegiate assessor”, a petty bureaucrat who passes judgement, based on surface values. His Nose, however, has other ideas and runs away, taking on a life of its own, more adventurously led than its supposed owner’s.   The nose of a person’s face defines their outward appearance.  Kovalov’s nose shows him up for what he is, or isn’t.  And, by extension, the whole social order.  The Nose is not comedy, it’s savage satire. Miss that and miss its fundamental, pungent purpose. No excuses. Shostakovich is hardly an unknown composer. Moreover, The Nose,was created at a time of exceptional artistic freedom in the early years of the Revolution, when the Soviet dream represented ideals and progressive change. Futurism, expressionism, modernity, Eisenstein, Bulgakov, Mayakovsky.  Shostakovich was only 20 when the piece was written, still full of courage and hope. But even those who don’t know the background have only to pay attention to the music to get it.

Shostakovich’s score explodes with inventiveness and zany experiment.  It begins with a fanfare and the roll of drums, like Grand Opera, but opens onto mundane scenes in mundane lives.  David Pountney’s translation respects the image of smell. Something’s off , rotting perhaps, even though we can’t see it.  Despite the exuberant scoring  deliberately more circus than High Art, The Nose parodies the rich tradition of Russian opera. There’s relatively little singing, and what there is is shrill and distorted, closer to Sprechstimme than to aria.  Significantly, some of the best music for voice lies in the choruses, who represent the “ordinary” masses, and in the vignettes for subsidiary characters, all of them characterized with great gusto.  The Nose may also be the Royal Opera House’s tribute to John Tomlinson, who will never sing again but can still hold an audience spellbound by his incisive acting in multiple roles, a good foil for Martin Winkler’s Kovalov, whose  identity remains constant throughout proceedings. Part of this story is about Kovalov’s supine personality, in contrast to the vivacious spontaneity of his Nose, who doesn’t give a stuff about propriety and the right way to do things.  Winkler’s a good singer, which made his performance piquant.  The innate authority in Winkler’s voice suggested that there might, somehow, be depth in Kovalov, if only he wasn’t so repressed.  The vignettes were also well performed : honours to the ever popular Wolfgang Ablingrer-Sperrhacke, but also to the sturdy regulars of the ROH company, without whom the ROH would not be what is is.  The choruses, needless to say, were superb.

The extremes in Shostakovich’s score should also alert any listener to the true nature of the piece.  The famous Percussion interlude pounded violently: it might suggest Kovalov’s approaching nightmare, or perhaps the tension the Nose feels as it’s about to break way.  Words would be superfluous. This isn’t “comfort listening”. Ingo Metzmacher’s conducting was idiomatic and utterly expressive. The angular, jagged edges in this music are absolutely part of the meaning of this opera, as are the bluesy distortions, especially in the brass, where the lines of convention are eroded. Horns  and trumpets blowing raspberries, just as The Nose treats Kovalov with jaunty irreverence.  Wonderful playing from the Royal Opera House orchestra, who sounded as though they were having a wonderful time, escaping, like The Nose, from standard repertoire.  Shostakovich’s instrumentation is deliberately bizarre. Famously, he employed a Flexatone, a kind of whirring saw whose wailing timbre suits the craziness in the plot. He also uses a xylophone, a balalaika, a whistle and castanets, and weaves these in well with the rest of the orchestra. The high woodwinds, for example, chuckle and chatter in frantic staccato, the strings scream. This manic instrumentation reflects the plot, too, in its depiction of the variety and diversity of life beyond Kovalov’s narrow horizons.

Wild as the music is, it would be a mistake to assume that undisciplined playing would be in order. Quite the contrary.  Metzmacher pulls the wildness together so the colours stay vivid, and the players operate in relationship to each other. Again, this precision reflects the dance element in the opera, so very much a fundamental to its meaning.  The Nose was created for the Mariinsky and its excellent corps de ballet.  Dancers can’t do free for all, or they’d collapse in an unco-ordinated heap. The tightness of Metzmacher’s conducting gave them firm support so they could do their artistic thing, knowing they could rely on the pulse in the orchestra. Absolutely fabulous choreography (Otto Pichler) and wonderfully executed dancing from the members of the Royal Ballet.  Who can forget the chorus line of high-kicking Noses. The Nose itself was Ilan Galkoff.  For me, the high point was the ensemble of Eunuchs, a flamboyant drag act.  I loved their physicality: the animal energy in those limbs expressing the freedom the Nose represents!

Wonderful performances all round: the Royal Opera House at its best.  The disappointment, though, was the banality of the staging,directed by Barry Kosky. Presenting Shostakovich, and especially The Nose as feelgood West End Song and Dance Act is a travesty, a total denial of everything the piece stands for.  Kosky is popular because he gives punters what they want, nice things to look at without engaging their minds.  Obviously there’s a market for that, but it’s a betrayal of The Nose and everything it stands for.  The Nose isn’t specifically Russian or Soviet, though those elements are relevant, but its primary focus is on the way society operates through group think , based on shallow surface appearances.  So what do we get ? A Nose dedicated to unquestioning superficiality.  All those wonderful individual performances but built on the dead heart of a clueless concept.  Audiences  assume Regie means costumes, and updating, but what it really means is whether the visuals contribute to the expression of meaning. Kosky’s The Nose is bad Regie because it ignores the basic ideas behind the opera, its music and its composer.  We live in times when artistic integrity doesn’t count for much and mob populism rules.  So a lot more is at stake than just opera.  All directors have their signatures, just like conductors and singers make an individual stamp.  Kosky’s reminds me of Tracey Emin’s unmade bed.  Wildly popular, but who needs the whiff of stale emissions and sordid self obsession?  We’ve all “been there” but most of us grow up and  do other things. But the punters like it, so it must be art.  That is why, for me, Eunuch The Nose was a deal breaker.

Original Source: Eunuch Shostakovich The Nose, Royal Opera House

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