• Written by Michael Halliwell, Associate Professor of Vocal Studies and Opera, University of Sydney

Dimitri Shostakovich’s The Nose, with its chorus line of large, tap-dancing noses, has something to appeal to the most jaded operatic palate, which might have over-indulged in too many Bohemes, Butterflies and Toscas. The phallic, Freudian connotations of its title whet the appetite.

Based on a short story by Gogol, set in St Petersburg, the opera describes the macabre situation of a public servant, Kovalev, who wakes up to find his nose has disappeared.

A chorus line of large, tap-dancing noses in the Opera Australia production. Prudence Upton

He sets out on a bizarre quest to recover the missing organ, seeking the help of a newspaper and the police along the way. Meanwhile, the nose has literally taken on a life of its own, increased markedly in size, and is having a whale of a time. A series of increasingly surreal events finds Kovalev finally re-attached to his nose, but without its pimple on the left side. Confused? Sure.

The accident of birth can scarcely have played a more important role in the life of any great artist than that of Shostakovich. Born in St Petersburg in 1909, early musical talent saw his admittance at 13 to the Petrograd Conservatory - the name change indicative of recent seismic political changes. Like many artists, he was forced to navigate the increasingly treacherous political waters of the Soviet Union, often forced to compromise.

The most notorious, and potentially career-ending incident was a damning review of his opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District that appeared in the Soviet newspaper Pravda in 1936. The review was unsigned; a strong suspicion has always attached to Stalin who attended a performance.

Shostakovich fell in and out of favour until his death in 1975. Although his early career was comparatively unclouded by politics, The Nose (1929), his first opera, perplexed and even enraged many. Against the composer’s wishes, it was given a concert performance in June 1929, and vehemently attacked by the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians; its stage premiere in January, 1930 was similarly met with hostility and incomprehension. Probably the most unashamedly modernist of all his works, strongly reflecting the Zeitgeist, it has remained a fascinating challenge for innovative directors and opera companies.

Expatriate Australian director Barrie Kosky and The Nose seem made for each other. Kosky has always revealed a surreal, scurrilously confronting, but highly inventive and vivid vision of the world - not for him a quotidian, routine approach. Chief Director of the Berlin Komisches Oper, a company celebrated for not playing it safe, Kosky has a particularly European operatic sensibility in its most imaginative and creative sense.

Alexander Lewis, Martin Winkler and chorus in Opera Australia’s 2018 production of The Nose at the Sydney Opera House. Prudence Upton

Discussing The Nose, he argues that the opera “defies genre: I wouldn’t say it’s a comedy, and I wouldn’t say it’s serious. What Gogol wrote is a fairy story and, like all fairy stories, there are very, very rich levels underneath the story, but you have to present the piece for what it is, which is a fantastic, surreal, grotesque tale.” Shostakovich’s music is indeed kaleidoscopic, revelling in a bewildering range of idioms and styles.

Kosky’s outstanding production, restaged by Felix Seiler for Opera Australia, has played in Berlin and London, and is sung in an expressive English translation by David Poutney. The production fully exploits all the potential farce and scenic mayhem inherent in the opera. It is naturally over-the-top at times, but fully within the madcap spirit of the work and its often bizarre world view.

The sets by Klaus Grunberg and Annie Kuhn provide a vivid backdrop for a cast let by Martin Winkler’s expressively rich baritone as Kovalev, particularly moving in his lachrymose lament for his lost nose that ends Act One. He is matched by the renowned bass, Sir John Tomlinson, as the doctor and other roles. The great Wotan here relishes the comedy of several wonderful scenes with Winkler.

The rewowned bass Sir John Tomlinson and dancers in The Nose. Prudence Upton

Alexander Lewis reprises his role as the tenor Nose itself, which he has also sung to acclaim at the New York Met in the much more conservative William Kentridge production, recently seen in a HD broadcast.

There is a huge cast of many of Australia’s most talented singers - the score calls for 78 singing and nine speaking roles - far too many to mention here, but Sian Pendry, Jacqueline Dark, Kanen Breen, Eva Kong, and Virgilio Marino in particular stood out. The chorus deal with this challenging music with aplomb while the orchestral forces are led with often wild energy but always complete control by Andrea Molino.

The costumes are a riot of colour and styles, and the choreography by Otto Pichler must be applauded - the tap-dancing noses brought the house down. It’s certainly a strange work, but as a character observes at the end: “whatever you may say, these things do happen in the world - not often - but they do”.

The Nose is at the Sydney Opera House until March 3.

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