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Opera Essentials: Shostakovich’s The Nose

Our quick guide to Shostakovich’s surreal and brilliant first opera, in a new production by acclaimed Australian director Barrie Kosky.

By Kate Hopkins (Content Producer (Opera and Music))

27 September 2016 at 12.00pm | Comment on this article

The Story Begins…

The pompous Collegiate Assessor Kovalov wakes up one morning to find that his nose has vanished from his face. An increasingly nightmarish day follows, with Kovalov undergoing a host of bizarre encounters and experiences as he chases his Nose all over St Petersburg. Will he ever get it back?

A Masterful Russian Satire

The Nose is based on the short story Nos (The Nose) by the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol. Gogol’s large and varied output included historical fiction, plays (including The Government Inspector), folklike tales, chilling supernatural short stories and social critiques, such as the novel Dead Souls. His fascinations with Ukrainian puppet theatre, with bizarre dream worlds and with absurdity all come to the fore in Nos. Dmitry Shostakovich greatly admired Gogol’s story, and wrote his own libretto, paying special attention to the nuances in Gogol’s text.

Struggling Against Authority

Shostakovich wrote The Nose at the prodigiously young age of 21. He hoped to breathe new life into Soviet opera, which seemed to him antiquated compared to recent developments in theatre and film. In constructing this first opera he was influenced by experimental theatre (particularly the work of avant-garde director Vsevolod Meyerhold). Unfortunately the opera was considered too irreverent by Stalin’s ‘proletarian critics’, who gave it harsh reviews on its premiere in January 1930. It was not staged again in Russia until 1974, and in recent decades the opera has begun to gain a hold in the international repertory.

Theatrical Absurdity

Shostakovich’s witty score uses a montage of styles, including atonality, popular dance, circus music and folksong, and deftly parodies traditional operatic numbers, including the religious chorus (in Act I) and the romantic aria (in Act III). Striking instrumental effects include the peculiar opening as the barber shaves Kovalov, an orchestral interlude scored for percussion, and Kovalov’s manservant Ivan’s folksong in Act II, accompanied by balalaika.

A Surreal Fairytale

Barrie Kosky’s production draws on the absurdity of Gogol’s story and the circus and revue elements of the score to create a rollercoaster ride of theatrical styles and emotions. It is set inside the vaudeville that is Kovalov’s mind. We encounter his all-singing, all-dancing inner angels and demons, creating what is maybe a true expression of what life can feel like from the inside when we encounter fear and loss.

The Nose runs 20 October–9 November 2016. Tickets are still available.

The production is a co-production with Komische Oper Berlin and Opera Australia, and is staged with generous philanthropic support from Hamish and Sophie Forsyth, The Tsukanov Family Foundation and The Royal Opera House Endowment Fund.

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