I’m going to start this review by saying that I don’t go to the opera all that often. I’m not much of a fan of Verdi, Puccini or Wagner. And I’m also not a fan of spending more than $100 a throw for music I am marginal about. I am, however, a huge Shostakovich fan, so when I heard The Nose was being staged by Opera Australia. So I went – and what I discovered was a crazy, unhinged night in the theatre.
It is probably best to see The Nose itself as a perfectly preserved artefact of the 1920s. The music would be almost unrecognisable to fans of the Shostakovich of his 5th Symphony and the music written after that. It’s all absurdity, brash noises and non-sequitur, showing the influences of other atonal music being written in the hedonistic atmosphere of the decade. It is fair to characterise phases of Shostakovich’s music in terms of cats. This is not the darkly ominous older cat style to which most of us are familiar. This is Shostakovich the Kitten, jumping around, not caring what others think or react. The production style brought to us by Barrie Kosky emphasised this young man / 1920s feel, with the Keystone Cops style interludes from various law enforcers, and the black and white movie style makeup and acting. It was a wonderfully opulent museum piece.
As a theatre piece and performance, The Nose is a spectacularly silly piece where the main character, Kovalev, is a pretty detestable bureaucrat whose nose disappears from his face. It the time it has away from its owner, the nose becomes more respected and has more adventures than he was having. Hijinks ensue that make next to no sense for the most part, including people in giant nose costumes dancing at random times. The plot took me to the same place as sketches in the Micallef Program / Pogram where we were left grasping for some kind of reason, some kind of bigger meaning and coming up empty. (Mad As Hell goes to that same place sometimes.) And The Nose is glorious when going there. This impression was enhanced by the performance of Martin Winkler, whose facial and bodily clownish instincts were reminiscent of Francis Greenslade’s best silent work. This is theatre of the absurd long before Beckett and co.
There is a wider meaning to all of this, however, in that Shostakovich is poking fun at the notion that bureaucracy, institutions and social barriers should be respected. The nose’s ease at transcending barriers, as well as the various jokes at Kovalev’s expense is a 20 year old’s suggestion that society is mean and brutal, and its stratas simply reinforce that reality. Kovalev himself is a dark portrayal of a figure with enough importance to believe he is better than most, but in reality is a pathetic, detestable sexist, arrogant nobody. If this was the modern day, he would be a backbench MP.
I’m glad, though, that Kosky stuck to the 20s origins of the piece. The vision of society that exists here fits into the nihilistic 1920s in which Shostakovich wrote it. It’s darkly symbolic of the creative life of Shostakovich that he wrote this for Meyerhold’s experimental theatre in 1927, but by the time it was performed, 1930, the cultural climate had changed profoundly. Looking at the themes and style of the production, it’s little wonder that the composer in his carefree kitten stage fell foul of the emerging Stalinist machine. It’s possible, though, to also see the Nose as being a part of a genre of Shostakovich poking fun at bureaucratic structures and acts, in that his musical Moscow, Cheryomushki, did the same in 1959 – but in a less caustic, madcap fashion.
While the production was stunningly staged and performed, this is not to say everything was great about the evening for everyone. My wife, who is a fan of his later work, but is also not a regular opera goer, was not liking the unrelenting mania of the score. Both of us staggered out with headaches at the end. (Headaches solved with rapid acting tablets, then excellent cocktails at the Kittyhawk down the road). This wasn’t helped by the omission of an interval, which I think was a bad call for such an attack on the senses as this opera is. Even if the opera only runs for 2 hours, it’s still not ideal for the audience and the opera would not have suffered with a break. It would have made the experience more enjoyable. Even Beckett gave people an interval in Godot.
Overall, however, The Nose is a unique, challenging and spectacular theatre experience and it’s a pity that it’s got a short run. The orchestra and singing throughout was excellent, and I’m told by seasoned opera goers that the recent upgrade of the acoustic in the Joan Sutherland Theatre meant that it all sounded much more crisp than ever before. In terms of the other reviews of the production – Peter McCallum in Fairfax and Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore in the Guardian, McCallum’s review is pretty spot on, but Sebag-Montefiore misses many points. Her decrying of “farts, belches and sneezes” omits the fact Shostakovich incorporated such references in the libretto and in the score. Shostakovich also would not have wanted his audience to understand the “true fear and pain” of losing a nose. Kovalev is deliberately a lecherous, sexist and fatuous clown for which we are supposed to feel no sympathy. What she depicts as “tries too hard” is more stylistic forms from the 1920s. What audiences will get from The Nose is a composer from that decade experimenting with style, drawing from theatre traditions, but also trashing opera traditions for the sake of cracking a few fart and nose gags. And it’s all the better for doing it.