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.