Although there are a multitude of themes to be played out in Shostakovich’s The Nose (1928), itself based on Gogol’s satirical short story, the one with the most theatrical potential is the notion of absurdism in its own right. At the centre of the story is the ludicrous idea of a man losing his own nose, but the madness is compounded by the fact that he is virtually powerless to retrieve it because he is surrounded by a world that is even more bizarre than the original event.
This point is played out well in Barrie Kosky’s new production for the Royal Opera, representing the first occasion on which the piece has graced the stage at Covent Garden. William Kentridge’s 2010 production for the Metropolitan Opera utilised a plethora of video projections that imitated Russian artistic styles to highlight the sense of pandemonium. Kosky achieves the same overall results, only by employing a more measured and controlled approach.
Russian art is cleverly alluded to in Klaus Grünberg’s set, without being directly reproduced. The shiny floor with its uniform square pattern, and the semi-circular proscenium arch placed within the Royal Opera House’s permanent one, offer us the basic shapes from which Russian futurist, abstract or constructivist paintings might be created. They do not reproduce their colours or textures (although the shadows that lampposts sometimes cast on the walls may begin to) and so the set, instead of generating pandemonium itself, presents an area that is conducive to allowing chaos to be unleashed. The staging is exceptionally slick as policemen dance and tumble around, and chorus girls are played by male dancers in drag. Round tables that might be found in a restaurant form an all-purpose prop that, by being fixed to tricycle-like contraptions, can be peddled into place while creating dynamic patterns in their own right.
The scene at the newspaper offices illustrates the attention to detail that the production displays. It also reveals its prowess at showing how the real problem for Kovalov is not the initial losing of his nose, but the madness of the world around him that makes it so difficult for him to retrieve it. Despite not being visible from the vast majority of seats, the newspapers really do read ‘Pravda’ (in Russian, although the performance is in English) and carry the paper’s logo. In addition, when we look closely we see that all of the journalists and printers whose job it is to create news are actually cutting and ripping newspapers up! The extent to which Kovalov is caught up at the centre of a world inclined to swamp him is also illustrated through the lighting. On several occasions he stands in front of a black front curtain with a spotlight creating one shadow directly behind him, and other lights at diagonals casting larger ones to either side.
As per usual, the nose takes on two sizes over the course of the drama: normal nose-size and life-size! When in its latter incarnation it is danced very well by 13-year old Ilan Galkoff who has this enormous pink structure placed on him as only his legs remain visible. The absence of Kovalov’s nose is also conveyed simply but effectively. The relevant area on his face is painted red while everyone else sports large false noses. This not only emphasises the difference, but also hands the other figures an appropriate sense of caricature. The large cast also capture just the right level of exaggeration in their performance styles and none more so than Sir John Tomlinson in the multiple roles of the Barber, Newspaper Office Clerk and Doctor. He utilises his trademark ability to engage with an audience through his gestures and movements to embrace the humour, without making his performances so comical as to lose the overall sense of absurdity.
There are a plethora of other excellent performances from amongst the large cast, with Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke as Ivan, Peter Bronder as Iaryshkin and Ailish Tynan as Podtotshina’s Daughter standing out in particular. The highest accolades, however, are reserved for Martin Winkler who so effortlessly embodies the desperate and befuddled Kovalov that we almost forget that we are listening to a bass-baritone revealing exceptional tone. That is good because it means we are sucked in to such an extent that we become oblivious to the fact that there is any form of display on his part at all.
At just over two hours, with no interval, the opera lasts around ten minutes longer than any other performance due to a few insertions, none of which require the addition of a single note of music. It would be a shame to give these away, but one in particular proves absolutely hilarious. Another towards the end, however, lets the evening down because it undermines the whole way in which absurdism works, by explicitly telling us that what we have just witnessed makes no sense and presents so many unanswered questions. Nevertheless, with conductor Ingo Metzmacher masterfully extracting the sounds from the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House that Shostakovich surely intended, this is a production that begs to be experienced.
Harrison Noble plays The Nose on 24 and 27 October and 4 November.