BARRIE Kosky’s Production of “The Nose” already has Sydney opera lovers split down the middle, with some declaring that it was “stunning” and “dealt a blow to my heart like a bullet” and others sympathising with Josef Stalin’s distaste for Dmitri Shostakovich’s youthful experiments.
It’s based on an absurdist short story by Nicolai Gogol about an obscure public servant (like those in his famous play “The Government Inspector”) who wakes up one morning to find his nose gone from his face. That does seem a great story on which Shostakovich could hang satirical comments about the media, the police, the medical profession and anybody else he felt like having a go at. But an opera?
As soprano Antoinette Halloran, dressed up like a commercial TV presenter, asks, why would you want to write an opera about it?
The audience never find out the answer and, as with much Theatre of the Absurd, right at the end the nose has come off again, presumably leading to a repetition of the picaresque journey through the streets of St Petersburg – the Nevsky Prospect, the summer gardens and so on.
Was it the drunken barber who did it? Or was it a plot by a scheming mother wanting to trap him into marriage with her daughter? We never really know.
Conductor Andrea Molino and his orchestra grapple heroically with the extraordinary mixture of cacophony, musical parody, magnificent brass showstoppers, and rhythmical gobbledygook created by the 20-year-old genius Shostakovich in seemingly sporadic bursts. There were times when some instrumentalists could easily have gone out for a sandwich between their sections.
Unusually for opera, it was less the music that people seemed to have come for than the in-your-face theatrical direction of Kosky, who took a cast of 26 leading OA principals, most playing multiple roles, through physical acrobatics that would do credit to a seasoned commedia dell’arte performer.
The central character, Platon Kuzmitch Kovalev, was played in a bravura performance by Austrian bass-baritone Martin Winkler, surely the finest thing seen on the Opera House stage in many years.
His extraordinary physical agility saw his character leap and bound around the stage, humiliated and yet triumphant. One can only guess at the rehearsal process which lay behind his masterful clowning.
Matching in him in eccentricity was Britain’s Sir John Tomlinson, first as the barber who finds a nose in his bread, then as a clerk, an incompetent doctor and a Persian potentate.
During the mystifying travels of the elusive Nose – or noses, for at one point the stage was filled with a tap dancing chorus line of noses – the audience is treated to a newsprint-munching group of journalists, a Gilbert and Sullivan line-up of cops, a bunch of bearded ladies, belching and farting denizens of a bordello and respectable ladies and gentlemen.
The result is chaos, delightful or otherwise depending on your taste. So wildly colourful were the costumes that at times it was impossible to distinguish one character from another, adding to the sense of cosmic disorder.
To go or not to go? For this reviewer, it was one of the longest two hours in recollection, and yet there was much to dazzle the senses.