Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House,
February 22, 2018
Written by Deen Hamaker
Even by the standards of contemporary 21st century opera, Dmitri Shostakovich’s Hoc, here performed in English translation as The Nose, is out there. Way way out there. Musically the piece is a heady mix of jarring styles from Russian choral, circus and folk music to 20th century modern music. The synopsis of the opera is even more bizarre. A bureaucrat’s nose develops a life of its own, causing havoc across St Petersburg. Add Barrie Kosky’s inspired direction and a brilliant cast, this might be one of the most stunning operatic events that Sydney has seen in years.
Shostakovich is best known in operatic circles for Lady Macbeth of Mtensk, a masterpiece of the 20th century operatic repertoire, a huge success when premiered in Leningrad in 1934. But when it was officially condemned in Pravda in 1936, Shostakovich turned his back on opera. While he did return to make some changes to Lady Macbeth of Mtensk in the early 1960’s, there would be no more operas from Shostakovich. But before Lady Macbeth of Mtensk, Shostakovich had composed a very different opera, The Nose. Composed in his 20’s and filled with the exuberance of youth, the opera is an exercise in every kind of excess. Taking a short story from Nikolai Gogol, Shostakovich created a satire rich in irony and dread. The music is wild and rough one minute and peaceful and lyrical the next.
Taking on this zany piece would be daunting for any opera company, so it was with great joy that I learnt that Opera Australia had taken a gamble on this unusual piece. It is a double celebration as it brings the welcome return to the Sydney Opera House of the visionary Australian opera director, Barrie Kosky. Kosky is one of the leading figures in the opera world. As artistic director of Berlin’s Komische Oper. He has created an offbeat world of comedy and darkness filled with satire and over the top imagery. Frenetically paced and stunningly theatrical, the production was a roaring success at London’s Royal Opera, Covent Garden. After its Sydney season the production travels to Berlin for a season. Featuring a troupe of dancers, a huge cast and chorus, Kosky’s production skews towards circus and cabaret. Highlights include 10 muscular male dancers as Russian housewives in headscarves and lingerie, restaurant tables on bicycles and cigar chomping Russian showgirls. Kosky’s style finds a way of working with Shostakovich’s work that extenuates the opera rather than overpowering it. Several pointed jokes have been added that dig at bourgeois attitudes in Sydney in particular which set the audience roaring with laughter.
In addition to a full chorus and troupe of dancers, there are over 70 solo roles taken by 26 singers. With music as complicated as this, it is a major feat to just sing the piece. To sing it while clowning, dancing and being thrown from pillar to post is extraordinary. As the bureaucrat buffoon Platon Kuzmitch Kovalev, German baritone Martin Winkler is extraordinary. In a bravura performance he clowns, dances and sings up a storm through 120 minutes of zaniness. He is the linchpin that holds the work together. Whether high kicking with the Keystone Cops or being carried around in his underwear, he is sensational throughout. There is one other star import – and what an import he is – the venerated Sir John Tomlinson, the superstar British bass making his Australian debut. He is astonishing in a variety of roles, a barber, newspaper clerk and doctor, a mellifluous bass voice that is strong yet agile in a fabulous star turn.
The cream of Australia’s operatic talent is on display in the substantial ensemble. Antoinette Halloran takes on the barber’s wife amongst an assortment of roles. She almost steals the entire show with a speech that takes the mickey out of the opera and the world of opera, delivered in a broad Australian accent reminiscent of a commercial channel newsreader. She excels as the barber’s wife and is hilarious and just a little creepy as a sex-crazed pretzel seller. Kanen Breen takes on the killer role of the Police Inspector with its scarily high vocal range. Breen is wonder, demonstrating his exceptional comedy skills and total commitment to his performance, excelling in the high lying passages that must be some of the most difficult tenor writing in any opera. Effortlessly melding the very top of his range with his wonderful falsetto, Kanen shows why he is one of the best performers in the country.
Amongst the huge cast there are some stand out performances. Warwick Fyfe is as magnificent as ever. Virgilio Marino is hilarious and vocally as fabulous in the role of Kovalev’s servant. He holds several long notes during Act III that that are as technically brilliant as they are comical. Jacqueline Dark as the Countess is fabulous, riding poor Kovalev while having premonitions of her own death. Other members of this breathtaking ensemble of singers that come in for special praise include Eva Kong, Sian Pendry, Alexander Lewis and Gennardi Dubinsky. But the entire cast is stupendous.
Conductor Andrea Molino has led several of Opera Australia’s productions of 20th century operas, from the Polish Krol Roger by Szymanowski to the American Carlisle Floyd’s Of Mice and Men. In The Nose, Molino is exceptional, leading the Opera Australia Orchestra in a high-octane performance that keeps the vigour and verve of the music moving throughout the two-hour piece. Particular praise goes to the trumpets and percussionists who play Shostakovich’s jagged lines with stunning effect, bringing out the brilliant colours in the music.
The Opera Australia Chorus was truly magnificent. Playing dozens of characters and clothed in spectacular costumes, the chorus sang with beauty and poise. From the screamin’ craziness of the chorus of Act 3 to the grand chorale in the Kazan Cathedral in Act 1, the chorus was fully committed to their performances and sang this challenging score with panache.
With the heady mix of Gogol’s bizarre story, Shostakovich’s eclectic music and Kosky’s shocking production, this is probably one of the most stunning and exuberant operas that Sydney has seen in years. Opera Australia has gone out on a limb to produce an opera that is very far from the standard repertoire. But if this is what a trip off the beaten track is like at Opera Australia, I’m sure the packed, cheering opening night crowd will agree that while The Nose is a slightly bewildered night in the theatre, Kosky’s magic and a sensational cast bring spectacular life to Shostakovich’ earliest opera.
Deen Hamaker for SoundsLikeSydney©
Deen Hamaker is a passionate opera aficionado and commentator. Introduced to theatre, opera and classical music at a very young age, he has acted in and directed several theatre productions, both in Australia and overseas. Deen lived in Japan for several years and studied the performing arts of Asia. Deen’s particular passion is opera, particularly the Russian, French and Modern repertoire. Deen was a contributing author for “Great, Grand and Famous Opera Houses”, 2012. Fluent in Japanese, Deen holds a Bachelor of Arts in Japanese from Griffith University and currently lives in Sydney.