Opera + Classical Music Reviews

The Nose: Kirov Opera @ Coliseum, London

20 and 21 July 2006

The Nose

The Nose

Of all Shostakovich’s compositions, The Nose is surely the closest he came to committing outright musical rebellion. In choosing to adapt Nikolay Gogol’s tale for the stage he took a piece of satire head-on, free to challenge conventions of form and voice. This he did with music that taxed vocal and instrumental registers to the limit, producing some truly weird and wonderful textures and sounds.

He also ensures that the entire opera seems to pass without repetition of ideas, with little or no thematic development.

Gogol’s story is pure farce. Platon Kuzmich Kovalev, a collegiate assessor, wakes up one morning without his nose, which has taken flight and a mind of its own. Rather than feeling pain at his loss, Kovalev seems more distressed at the social problems this is going to bring. When he finds the Nose in the Kazan Cathedral it already outranks him, now equivalent to an army brigadier. In an increasingly bizarre and fantastic plot development the Nose causes riots wherever it goes, tracked down to shopping centres and finally cornered by the police. Though eventually returned to its rightful owner, the Nose continues to cause no end of trouble to the story’s end.

In bringing this to life Shostakovich’s music is thrilling in its wild unpredictability, and in Valery Gergiev he has the ideal advocate. The conductor’s arms are briefly visible above the pit as he flings them skyward, coaxing a raucous bassoon here or a shrill wind instrument there. The Kirov’s sound is raw, but the instrumentalists, virtuosic as they are, are second fiddle to a dazzling array of vocal talent.

As the main character, Vladislav Sulimsky is superbly vain, and does a nice line in self-pity. The Nose itself is played by two people. Sometimes it appears in dance form, a man wrapped from top to toe in an elastic white sheet who proceeds to perform disturbing, abstract moves, and in vocal form through the full-bodied tenor of Avgust Amonov, who again rather chillingly appears to have been dressed as Dracula.

Shostakovich’s demands on his singers are famously fiendish, and none more than the highest of high Es assigned to the district constable in his famous Act One entry. This is supremely accomplished by Andrei Popov, who continues to give a piercing vocal delivery along with a humorous stage manner totally in keeping with the idiom. It comes as no surprise to report that in the supporting Kirov cast there are also many wonderful things, chiefly from Larissa Shevchenko as a staff-officer’s wife, and Tatiana Pavlovskaya as her daughter. As Kovalev’s footman, Sergey Skorokhodov makes an impact in Act Three as a tenor of some distinction.

The staging is stunning and completely gripping. A large cylindrical construction, put to good use as the cathedral in Act One, becomes a bus in act three. Vivid lighting and various incendiary effects ensure the last ounce of madness is wrung from the story, and with Gergiev at the helm the results are never less than thrilling. Catch them while they’re still here – The Nose may be done, but there are other pieces in which to enjoy these supremely talented performers.

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