Shostakovich – The Nose

The Nose
opera in three acts and an epilogue, Op.15

Libretto by Georgy Ionin, Alexander Preiss, Yevgeny Zamyatin and the composer
English translation by Patrick Bailey, John Fulljames and Gary Yershon
chamber orchestra version by Patrick Bailey

Jeremy Huw Williams – Platon Kuzmich
Kovalyov, collegiate assessor
Tim Hicks – Ivan Yakovlevich, barber
Sara Egan – Praskovya Ossipovna, barber’s wife / Podtochina’s Daughter
Hilton Marlton – Police Inspector
Hubert Francis – Ivan, Kovalyov’s servant
Pamela Wilcock – Cathedral soloist
Alistair Armit – The Nose / Yarishkin
Simon Wilding – Newspaper Clerk / Doctor
Anna Boucher – Roll Seller / Alexandra
Grigoryevna Podtochina

John Fulljames – director
Alex Lowde – designer
Oliver Fenwick – lighting designer
Liz Dees – costume supervisor

The Opera Group Ensemble conducted by Patrick Bailey

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 16 June, 2001
Venue: Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, London

The Nose has had an undeniably chequered history. Completed in 1928, near the beginning of Shostakovich’s brief but heady Modernist phase, it ran for only 16 performances at Leningrad’s Maly Opera Theatre in January 1930; not to be revived in the USSR until the Moscow staging 44 years later. Productions in Dusseldorf in 1963, and Florence in 1964, had already made the work known in the West, though subsequent productions have been sporadic. This is the first London staging for over 20 years, in effect ensuring its reception by a new generation of theatre- and opera-goers.

It is worth noting that the composer himself had doubts about the work after its initial run and, whatever the ’official’ pressures that soon made further performances impossible, seems to have been in no hurry to have it revived. No doubt he felt it represented an approach to music-theatre such as would only be appreciated by an informed minority of the public (his second and last completed opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, sought a balance between theatrical radicalism and accessibility, with initially spectacularly successful results), but perhaps he was also taken aback by its sheer musical and dramatic consistency. Unlike the Second and Third Symphonies, and the ballets The Golden Age and The Bolt, which combine the experimental and the populist, The Nose is an all-out attack on convention such as the leading European opera composers had not attempted.

The actual ’meaning’ of Nikolai Gogol’s short story is hard to pin down, and can represent both a flight from reality and an intensification of that reality from an oblique, often surreal angle. There is little or no attempt at cause-and-effect: how Kovalyov’s nose comes to be in the barber’s breakfast roll; why Kovalyov only latterly realises the absence of his appendage; how the nose assumes human stature, only to revert to actual size when captured; why it should belatedly return to Kovalyov’s face having ’refused’ to stick on after its return: such details are glossed over or even ignored in Gogol’s tale, faithfully taken over by the composer and his co-librettists. Such a dramatically extreme scenario demands as much of its musical treatment – Shostakovich does not disappoint.

The three acts and epilogue comprise ten scenes, themselves consisting of 16 sections – a unitary construction that maintains a rapid pace of events and gives an almost cinematic abruptness to the dialogue. Character development is not an issue: it is behavioural caricatures we are dealing with here, everyday people reduced to theatrical ciphers as they respond with embarrassed indifference to Kovalyov’s misfortune – and collective hysteria to the sightings of the autonomous nose. The vocal writing is thus conceived in terms of timbre-differentiation rather than expressive variety. The orchestration is similarly one of extremes of register and separation, and it is a tribute to Shostakovich’s technical prowess that he could ensure continuity of texture through the unerring placement of instrumental parts in time and space; a context for vocal writing which, though hardly ’grateful’ in the accepted sense, enhances verbal meaning through prominence and flexibility of line.

Stylistically the score attests to Shostakovich’s absorbing of the range of contemporary Western opera to be heard in Leningrad during the mid-1920s. The emotional extremes of Wozzeck are present, as equally are the harmonic astringency and angular counterpoint of Hindemith’s Cardillac, and the rhythmic buoyancy and expressive detachment of Krenek’s Jonny spielt auf. The non-functional tonality that Shostakovich had explored in the piano Aphorisms and the Second Symphony is evident throughout, with the latter work’s ’ultrapolyphony’ employed to powerful effect in the frenzied intermezzo of scene 8. As with Wozzeck, orchestral interludes sum up or prepare for their respective scenes, though continuity of mood is often dispensed with, no more so than in the percussion interlude between scenes 2 and 3. Yet impersonal expression is by no means absolute: Kovalyov’s aria which closes act two is a fine example of emotion released through vocal plangency and realistic word-setting, such as Mussorgsky and Prokofiev had pursued. The work maintains a fine balance between the debunking and evolving of operatic tradition from first to last.

Those familiar with Gennadi Rozhdestvensky’s 1975 recording, made after the Moscow revival, might have expected a staging by a touring opera company, in English and in a reduced chamber version, to have lacked the necessary conviction. However, The Opera Group’s production was clearly the outcome of painstaking preparation. Jeremy Huw Williams was wholly successful in making Kovalyov the focus of attention – engaging in his small-mindedness, and sympathetic in his moments of pathos, whatever the attendant self-pity. Hilton Marlton managed the Police Inspector’s unreasonable tessitura with relative ease, despite his ’stilted’ appearance. Alistair Armit gave the singing Nose undeniable presence, while Simon Wilding had the right surliness as the Newspaper Clerk. Hubert Francis caught the false subservience of Ivan to a T, as he did the plainspun lyricism of his lovesong in scene 6. Tim Hicks’s Barber and Sara Egan’s Daughter were characterfully brought off, as was Anna Boucher’s put-upon Roll Seller, with Pamela Wilcock’s Cathedral Soloist a magnetic cameo.

John Fulljames’s direction was incisive and made the most, in visual and movement terms, of Alex Lowde’s cage-like mesh, which formed the main stage-set. Oliver Fenwick’s lighting was resourceful, no more so than in the twilit hues which heighten anticipation at the opening of act three, as the authorities lie in the wait for the Nose – authentically surreal in Liz Dees’s costume design. Whether as co-translator, arranger and conductor, Patrick Bailey confirmed devotion to the task. Even if this is not an opera that stands to gain from interpretation as such, he put the score across with clarity and assurance, ensuring musical and dramatic intelligibility in even the most uncompromising passages. Hopefully earlier performances had attracted rather fuller houses: this was an imaginative and gripping revival of a singular opera, and deserved every success.

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