The Nose at ROH

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Last night saw the opening of Barrie Kosky’s highly anticipated Royal Opera House debut. Shostakovich’s The Nose was something that, I confess, I had no idea what to expect from. The only other Kosky production I had seen was one I loathed with a passion (ENO Castor and Pollux) for its tasteless vulgarity and lack of sensitivity to any nuance either of music or emotion. Some of these criticisms could also be applied to The Nose, but overall this was a production that managed to bring vitality and humour to the surreal fantasy.

At the heart of the piece lies a minor Russian bureaucrat Kovalyov (Martin Winkler), whose nose leaves him, and is then chased after all over St Petersburg. Ilan Galkoff as the nose itself is a charmingly tap-dancing schoolboy inside a giant costume, who in one memorable moment leads a chorus line of dancing noses on legs. This (male) chorus line, in fact, go through a whole range of strange parts, including lingerie with fur coats and beards with tiny circus-tent dresses. The choreography in general is well worked and effective, bringing psychedelic energy and a sense of drive throughout.

The music is Shostakovich in his anarchic youth – exuberant, full of witty parodies and quotations of other styles. Under Ingo Metzmacher the orchestra flourish and play with force and wit. The huge crowd scenes are also precisely corralled, and come off well. The huge number of solo parts work well together for the most part, with stand-out performances from Martin Winkler, John Tomlinson, and Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, and charming cameos from Susan Bickley, and Helene Schneidermann and Ailish Tynan as an excellent mother-daughter duo. The English translation for the most part does its job, though as always the vowel sounds don’t quite feel right for the music. But for the sake of intelligibility and laughs, it seems to have been the right decision is this case.

The greatest success of this production is in the surrealism and comedy, which manages by a touch to avoid becoming too broad and slapstick. However, it falters when attempting to get at all close to finding any emotional heart in the chaos. Shostakovich himself said that “The Nose is a horror story, not a joke”. While we get tastes of Kovalyov’s despair and desperation, the main thrust of the production still seems aimed at humour, not horror. Much more could be done with the third act, which seemed to be styled as a descent in Kovalyov’s deranged imagination more than a straightforward treatment of the plot. The narrative thread becomes lost – in a way that feels deliberate, but may just be sloppy direction. This could leave space for us to truly pity Kovalyov, and Martin Winkler certainly makes a good stab at making us do so, but in the end the action around him leaves him and the whole piece without much of a soul.

Così fan tutte at ROH

The Royal Opera House’s new production of Così fan tutte attempts to dispel the title’s obvious misogyny by telling us that, in fact, it is all humanity who are fickle and deceitful. Most laboriously, this point is driven home when the some of the bulbs on the giant ‘Così fan tutte’ sign that descends over the stage are unscrewed to leave ‘Così fan tutti’. And it is this precisely this kind of heavy-handed concept that characterises the production.

The evening opened as it went on. The overture was from the start a touch too broad in tempo, and the mock period curtain call that accompanied it on stage, while wittily observed, went on long beyond when the audience had got the point. The production seemed to wander in a slightly aimless way across the centuries, with Don Alfonso in 18th century costume, and the four lovers and Despina in modern dress. From starting in the modern day Royal Opera House, for the farewell scene the action suddenly shifts to a 1940s train station. From there, the setting  continues to change, including a garden of Eden set, a dressmaker’s shop, and a baroque theatre set. While this shifting is perhaps intended to suggest the timelessness of  the moral of the title, all it did was leave the opera baseless and drifting.

Occasionally, the staging decisions worked as they were obviously intended to, especially in the second half, where the use of the theatre flats brought out the meta-theatre of Alfonso’s machinations, and allowed a little space for some of Fiordiligi’s conscience-wrangling. But in general, it felt unfocused rather than deliberately surreal, and altogether too clever for its own good.

Musically, the performance was mixed. Right from the start, Semyon Bychkov’s tempi were too broad and lugubrious. Mozart’s musical wit was therefore often lost, though the textures were clear and the orchestral tone beautiful. The cast, mostly young, and several of them making house debuts, were generally impressive. They provided a brightness and sparkle that the conducting lost.

Corinne Winters made an appealing Fiordiligi, with emotional fervour, though occasionally lacking some depth on the lower notes in ‘Come scoglio’. She was well-matched in vocal tone by Angela Brower as Dorabella, who also worked well with Alessio Arduini’s slightly lacklustre but decent Guglielmo. Daniel Behle truly shone as Ferrando, however, especially in ‘Un’aura amorosa’, for which the production for once stood still for a moment and let the music through. Johannes Martin Kränzle and Sabina Puértolas complete a cast who complement each other well – perhaps the most important thing in this ensemble opera.

In the end, we are left feeling slightly unsatisfied – a feeling that suits the ambiguous plot resolution, but not necessarily how one should feel after a truly successful performance.

An Introduction

This is a new project for me. For no apparent reason, other than that according to some part of my mind I am not busy enough, I have decided to start a blog. I’ll be posting reviews of anything I happen to see, hear, or watch. This will be primarily opera, theatre, classical concerts and CDs, and more occasionally art exhibitions or films. Most of these will be from London, though when I travel I’ll hopefully add the odd thing from elsewhere. I will update when I have something to write about, but hopefully on average once every week or fortnight. I hope you will read, follow on twitter @the_arts_page and enjoy!