Nose on the Run

Jesse Simon

viernes, 13 de julio de 2018
Berlin, sábado, 16 de junio de 2018. Komische Oper Berlin. Dimitri Shostakovich: The Nose. Opera in three acts after Nikolai W Gogol (1930). Barrie Kosky, director. Günter Papendell (Kovalyov), Lion Sturm (The Nose), Jens Larsen (Ivan Yakovlevich), Rosie Aldridge (Praskovya Ossipovna), Alexander Kravets (Police Commissioner), Alexander Lewis (Man in Cathedral), Ivan Turšić (Ivan the Valet), Ursula Hesse von den Steinen (Pelagia Podtochina), Mirka Wagner (Podtochina’s Daughter), Chorus and Orchestra of the Komische Oper Berlin, Ainārs Rubiķis, conductor.
Günter Papendell © 2018 by Iko Freese

Until midway through the Komische Oper’s new production of The Nose, few in the audience would have identified ‘tap dancing noses’ as something that had been missing from their life. Yet there they were, tapping away as though it were the most obvious thing in the world. It was a moment of pure inspiration, thrilling not just for its choreography and execution, but for the edge of unfeigned madness it brought to the tale. The audience could hardly contain their enthusiasm, breaking into sustained applause before the last tap had died away. Shostakovich, and even Gogol himself, might not have disapproved.

Although nothing could quite top the dancing nose interlude, Barrie Kosky made sure that the two uninterrupted hours of Shostakovich’s early opera overflowed with similar moments of manic effusion. With few notable exceptions – Kovalyov’s drowsy visit to the newspaper offer and his anguished monologue at home – the level of visual stimulus remained high: a team of male dancers, engagingly choreographed by Otto Pichler, accompanied the energetic rhythms of the orchestral interludes, the choral crowd scenes, as one might expect from Mr Kosky, were excitingly anarchic, and even the lower-key character-driven scenes were given to the kind of sugar-shock exaggerations of a Saturday morning cartoon.

There was, indeed, so much dazzling about the production – assembled in collaboration with Covent Garden (where it has already appeared) and Madrid’s Teatro Real – as to conceal the fact that there was very little beneath the surface. Although the thread of Gogol’s tale remained present, the highly concentrated action of Shostakovich’s adaptation was often allowed to devolve into scenes of brilliant chaos, visually arresting but unclear in their relationship to anything else. Where Gogol used Kovalyov’s search for his missing nose as a vehicle for satirical depictions of Petersburg life, Mr Kosky used it as a point of departure for virtuoso set-pieces.

Mr Kosky is, of course, very good at set-pieces: he creates wonderful moments from awkward physical interactions, he has a knack for comedic exaggeration, and he is an undisputed master of complex crowd scenes. He is also not afraid to play directly to his audience; and when such an astonishing visual imagination is allowed to run wild, detached from the grounding weight of its source material, it can lead to spectacle for the sake of spectacle. The production succeeded – spectacularly – as a piece of entertainment, but was less successful as narrative comedy or even absurdist satire. The singing, the dancing, and the topical dialogue – the libretto, sung in a new German version by Ulrich Lenz, contains a few site-specific gags – all contrived to keep a smile on our face for the duration of the opera. Yet one left the theatre unmoved, the memory of writhing bodies and tap-dancing noses not quite able to mask the absence of engaging characters or meaningful action.

As the newly noseless collegiate assessor Kovalyov, Günter Papendell found himself at the centre of the opera’s many maelstroms, and his hectic performance was impressive as much for its physical endurance as its vocal composure. Mr Papendell spent much of the evening in a state of frantic disarray, tormented by a missing nose who always seemed to be several steps ahead, and it was his exaggerated actions that conveyed most clearly the theme of vanity and social propriety giving way to desperation. Yet Mr Papendell was able to balance the physical demands of the production with lithe phrasing and an assertive tone.

The supporting characters were brought to life by a cast of dozens, many singing multiple roles and none remaining on the stage for more than a few moments at a time. Jens Larsen was notably strong in the major bass roles, the barber Ivan Yakovlevich who first finds the nose, and the newspaper clerk who refuses to print Kovalyev’s missing-nose ad, but most especially as the doctor who goes to great lengths to explain why it would be best to leave the nose unattached; and Ursula Hesse von den Steinen and Mirka Wagner made excellent (if brief) appearances as Pelagia Podtochina and her daughter. Yet the energy of the evening relied less on single performers than the total concentration of the ensemble.

Conductor Ainārs Rubiķis, who is scheduled to begin his tenure as music director of the Komische Oper in the coming season, led the orchestra through a vigorous, intensely rhythmic reading of the score. Following the lead of the staging, Mr Rubiķis found lots of brash excitement in Shostakovich’s youthful orchestration – the trumpet remained prominent throughout and the percussive interludes had an immediacy somewhere between thrilling and uncomfortable – but he just as often chose to scale back the orchestral attack for scenes that required greater subtlety. The hypnotic scene in the newspaper office and the quietly methodical nose reattachment scene were haunting moments of calm in an evening of gleeful chaos.

Whatever misgivings one may have had about the level of visual overload, Mr Kosky’s production was entertainment of the highest order. The Nose may not be the musical or dramatic equal of Shostakovich’s second and final opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, but it is a work of considerable charm and vigour, and the opportunity to see it in such an imaginative staging is the kind of pleasure that outweighs minor reservations.


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