Shostakovich on Stage – The Nose

The Nose, Op.15 – Opera in three acts and ten scenes [Based on the short story by Gogol; sung in Russian with English surtitles]

Platon Kuzmich Kovalev – Vladislav Sulimsky
Ivan Yakovlevich, a barber – Alexei Tanovitsky
Praskovia Osipovna, his wife – Tatiana Kravtsova
District Constable – Andrei Popov
Ivan, Kovalev’s valet – Sergei Skorokhodov
The Nose – Avgust Amonov
Footman – Vladimir Samsonov
Newspaper Clerk – Ilya Bannik
Doctor – Gennadi Bezzubenkov
Yaryzhkin, the confidante – Evgeny Strashko
Pelageya Grigorievna Podtochina – Larissa Shevchenko
Her daughter – Tatiana Pavlovskaya
et al

Chorus, Ballet and Orchestra of the Mariinsky (Kirov) Theatre, St Petersburg
Valery Gergiev

Yuri Alexandrov – director
Zinovy Margolin – set designer
Maria Danilova – costume designer
Gleb Filshtinsky – lighting designer

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 20 July, 2006
Venue: The Coliseum, London

The production of almost all Shostakovich’s stage-works in London in a concentrated period promises to be the highlight of this year’s centenary celebrations: enabling a near-comprehensive assessment of a genre that dominated the first decade of his composing career, only to cease in the wake of the cultural clampdown from the mid-1930s. And there could be no better demonstration of that heady creative decade than “The Nose” (completed in 1928), whose controversial Leningrad premiere in 1930 confirmed Shostakovich as the leading figure in an age characterised by provocation and fearless experiment.

In drawing on the short story by Nikolai Gogol, he was consciously drawing on a satirical tradition that was arguably even more relevant to the early Soviet era than it had been to mid-nineteenth-century Russia. Certainly the extent of the cultural anarchy and administrative chaos which marked the USSRthroughout the 1920s finds ready parallels in Gogol’s tale of everyday paranoia and alienation: one in which the loss of one’s nose could be taken to represent any number of inhibitions social, emotional and sexual.

It is to the credit of director Yury Alexandrov that this production can encompass these qualities without the risk of being pinned down to a specific interpretation or viewpoint. The setting isnominally that of St Petersburg in the era of Alexander II, but seen through a focus that not merely distorts appearances but renders them intangible to a dream-like degree. As complemented by Zinovy Margolin’s 1920s-style constructivist sets – with their menacing overtones of early Soviet Futurism, the stylish Classical parody of Maria Danilova’s costumes and the lurid immediacy – all neon pinks and greens – of Gleb Filshtinsky’s lighting, the outcome is a staging which captures the opera’s barbed humour as much as it infers possibilities of a surreal, even imaginary kind. However interpreted, this production is able to convey the disturbing core of Shostakovich’s dramaticism to spellbinding effect.

An opera of such hectic pace and ceaseless activity offers precious little in the way of character development or interaction, making it vital that the role of Kovalev be made the focus of proceedings at all times. Suffice to say that Vladislav Sulimsky had the fullness of tone and suppleness of phrasing to furnish the hapless collegiate assessor with the presence required: a figure who is unmistakably of his social milieu yet evidently set apart from it through his inexplicable loss. Moreover, he handled thedifficult Coliseum acoustic with ease – projecting across its expanse so that he holds the attention of the auditorium as surely as he commands the stage. (As planned, Alexei Safiulin took this role the following night.)

None of the remaining parts serves more than an incidental purpose, but there are distinctive contributions from Alexei Tanovitsky as seedy barber Ivan and Tatiana Kravtsova as his shrewish wife. Avgust Amonov tackles the unreasonably high tessitura of The Nose when state councillor with confidence, with Ilya Bannik a wheedling newspaper clerk and Andrei Popov an obsequious district constable. Sergei Skorokhodov was a disinterested valet with Larissa Shevchenko and Tatiana Pavlovskaya well-matched as the overbearing widow Podtochina and her distinctly uncaptivating daughter. The Mariinsky Chorus and Ballet performed with customary aplomb, and with the depiction of the Nose as a sheet-clad spectre that wriggles away from Kovalyov’s attempts to reconnect with it a truly arresting touch.

Otherwise, and for all Shostakovich’s protestations that music, words and visuals be judged as an indissoluble unity, it is his score – in its staggering invention and charged theatricality – that assumes the foreground. And it is a measure of Valery Gergiev’s identification with the music that, while such infamous highlights as the Act One percussion interlude (taken at a hair-raising pace) and the densely surging polyphony of the Act Two ‘intermezzo’ are dispatched with assurance, it is in the more inward passages of the finales to the latter two acts – being, in their respectively brooding woodwind-writing and coolly capricious demeanour, most prescient of the future composer – that his interpretation leaves its strongest impression. The presence of such composers as Berg, Hindemith and Krenek has been frequently noted, and it is indicative of Shostakovich’s stature that he could so absorb such influences to the point where his music has taken on a distinctive and unmistakably personal profile.

That the auditorium had thinned out noticeably after the interval rather confirms that, in all of its uncompromising individuality and sheer provocation, “The Nose” has lost little of its theatrical potency. Shostakovich may well have sensed this when he apparently demurred before sanctioning its belated revival in 1974. Heard today, it can fairly be said to crown his first phase of composing – a testament to his creative ambition at a time when the artistic possibilities must have seemed virtually limitless.

  • Shostakovich on Stage continues until 29 July at The Coliseum, London (details through ENO link, below)
  • English National Opera

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