The Nose – The Opera Group

The Nose, Op.15 – Opera in three acts and ten scenes [Based on the short story by Gogol; sung in an English translation and in a chamber orchestra version by Patrick Bailey]

Platon Kuzmich Kovalyov – Jeremy Huw Williams
Ivan Yakovlevich, the barber – Andrew Rupp
Praskovya Osipovna, his wife – Catherine Hegarty
Police Inspector – Daniel Auchincloss
Ivan, the valet – Paul Featherstone
The Nose/Yarishkin – Alexander GroveNewspaper Clerk / Doctor – Simon Wilding
Alexandra Grigoryevna Podtochina, the widow / Roll Seller – Aileen Sim
Her daughter / Cathedral Icon – Sinead Campbell

The Opera Group Ensemble
Patrick Bailey

John Fulljames – Director
Alex Lowde – Designer
Oliver Fenwick – Lighting

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 25 July, 2006
Venue: Linbury Studio Theatre at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

What do noses and buses have in common? They both arrive in twos: at least, “The Nose” has done so in London in Shostakovich’s centenary year – which, given the composer’s early masterpiece lay unheard for 44 years after its 1930 premiere, is no bad thing. A few days earlier, the Mariinsky Theatre’s residency at the Coliseum led off with a production that captured the piece in all its reckless brilliance. A salutary reminder, too, that this is no ‘chamber opera’ – what with its extensive deployment of chorus and dancers, as well as its lavish writing for percussion – and, as such, is never likely to receive frequent staging. All the more reason, then, for a chamber reduction such as The Opera Group first put on at the Lyric, Hammersmith back in 2001, and which made a welcome revival at the Linbury.

Discussion of such a reduction tends to centre on what it fails to achieve compared to the original. The Opera Group’s production does not have the sheer physical impact or emotional intensity of the Mariinsky staging, though this is less noticeable given the tight visual and acoustical focus of the Linbury – with the audience never far from proceedings on stage or in the pit. Moreover, the fact that this is an ensemble opera makes it well-suited to the doubling of roles by a tightly-knit company such as this; endowing events with a degree of claustrophobia that is rarely less than apposite.

Above all, the music has been arranged for chamber forces by conductor Patrick Bailey so that little, if any, salient detail has been lost, with due appreciation for the finely-judged dissonance and contrapuntal ingenuity in which Shostakovich’s score abounds (thus the notorious percussion interlude in Act One, which sounds not in the least threadbare when reallocated to just four players). Opera reductions are common fare these days, but Bailey’s handling of “The Nose” easily ranks among the most effective.

The staging itself is rarely less than effective. Unlike the Mariinsky’s oblique representation of nasal loss, John Fulljames’s production opts for a graphic depiction – both in the scale model that emerges out of the barber’s loaf and is latterly returned to the forlorn Kovalyov, but also the human-sized nose that prances around the cathedral and holds up a stagecoach prior to its capture – so reducing the symbolic aspect of the drama while reinforcing its surreal, even comic nature. In other respects – most notably the assemblage of body parts that comprises the alter-piece at the cathedral, and the defining of rooms within a room to distinguish between events indoors and out on the streets – Alex Lowde’s designs are more realistic than those of the Mariinsky, with no loss of theatrical pungency or imagination. Much the same could be said of Oliver Fenwick’s unobtrusive yet always-astute lighting.

As to singers, the Opera Group has assembled a cast inevitably less classy than the Mariinsky, but not lacking in talent per se. Jeremy Huw Williams rises to the challenge of Kovalyov with assurance – encompassing the role’s extremes of despair and elation, manic zeal and bemused disinterest, such that he is closer to an ‘everyman’ persona than one might care to admit. It may be difficult to take his predicament at ‘face value’, but it is equally hard not to be drawn into the dilemma when rendered with such fervency. The remaining parts are more or less cameo roles: among which, Andrew Rupp’s hapless barber and Paul Featherstone’s uncouth Ivan are both vigorously in character. Simon Wilding is excellent both as a wheedling newspaper clerk and obsequious doctor, while Aileen Sim and Sinead Campbell complement each other well as the overbearing widow Podtochina and her unlovely daughter. Alexander Grove surmounts the title-role’s cruelly-lying tessitura with no audible lack of conviction.

Adopting swift but never unreasonably fast tempos, Bailey keeps the performance on its toes at all times. He brings propulsive force as well as much-needed clarity to the crowd scenes of Act Three – where the ‘ultrapolyphony’ that Shostakovich unofficially patented is enabled to build an unstoppable momentum, yet recognises that large portions of the opera inhabit a more introspective vein such as only gradually came to the fore in the composer’s thinking. It would be a pity were this production only to be revived at key junctures on the Shostakovich calendar: in fairly capturing its essence, it could prove to be the version of “The Nose” that keeps this singular opera in the modern repertoire.

  • Further performances on 27 and 28 July

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