Absolutely absurd: sniffing out a story of noses, nonsense and knowingness
Opera director Barrie Kosky claims that opera should change, challenge, and make you want a drink once you’ve left the auditorium, and he’s certainly succeeded with his directorial debut for the Royal Opera, Shostakovich’s The Nose; so much so, you might feel like you’ve had a drink (or two) before the end of the opening scene. The Nose, a surrealist satire with splashings of silliness, was live screened via The Royal Opera House’s YouTube channel the evening Trump became the US President-elect, and with its veiled exploration of status and popularity, it made strangely suitable and sobering viewing. Comedian Chris Addison, an informative, funny and, refreshingly, a seemingly off-the-cuff host, and the medium of live-streaming are promising signs that the Royal Opera House are still refuting the stereotype that opera is only for a certain type of person, and they may even be cutting off their own Nose to spite their face if they didn’t find a way to share shows like this one with a wider audience.
At the beginning of the broadcast, Addison quotes Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov – ‘the man with the longest nose sees further’ – and admits he has ‘no idea what that means either, but it sounds good, doesn’t it?’; in itself, quite an apt appraisal of the opera. Yet, the full quote is (a little) more illuminating; Nabokov is referring to Nikolai Gogol – the author of the original 1836 Russian short story, The Nose, or ‘Hoc’ – and his ‘long sensitive nose’ that ‘discovered new smells in literature’, and, ‘as a Russian saying goes, “the man with the longest nose sees further”; and Gogol saw with his nostrils.’ There is a knowingness to Gogol’s narrative, all the more so in the veiling of a sharply satirical viewpoint beneath an absolutely absurd appearance. The premise follows Major Kovalov as he pursues his missing nose and soon finds that this part of him is much more popular than his whole person.
David Pountney’s translation of the original Russian into English reflects the knowingness and nonsense of Gogol’s short story and Shostakovich’s 1928 score, full of neologisms – ‘de-nose-ification’ – knowingness – sneezing, sniffing, snoring and snuff – and innuendo, not always of the absurd nature, as Kovalov’s ‘loss of face’ and ‘featureless’ facade applies as much to the newspapers and their reputation as it does his noseless appearance. Sometimes there appears to be an openly political implication: a cycling policeman asks Kovalov ‘there’s a fork – to the right or to the left?’, and in our current polarised political climate, a spectrum with red at one end and blue at the other springs to mind.
Knowingness veiled by nonsense is as key a feature of The Nose as the nose itself is to Kovalov’s face. A metatheatricality permeates the production: from the false noses on the faces of every character, to the dual-rolling of the doctor and the barber, to the front curtain playing a part in the plot. Klaus Grünberg’s set, with its centre plinth, circular proscenium and pitch-black curtain feels like the setting for a sinister side show, and the interludes in front of the curtain – Kovalov cowering with his face in the gap, the giant noses tap-dancing, the nose finally being found poking out of it – facilitate a rapport between actor and audience that is rare for the opera. Kovalov’s nose may be more popular than him with the populace of St Petersburg, but it’s also a hit with the Opera House patrons. Kosky goes one step further, breaking the fourth wall with Ivan the servant’s cheer for his over-the-top operatic ‘heeeeeeeeeeere’, a well-dressed, well-spoken woman with a mic interrupting the final scene to reflect on the ‘greatest mystery of this sorry little tale, why anyone would want to perform it as an opera?!’, and actors shouting directly into the audience as appalled pretend-patrons shout back, ‘this is the bloody Royal Opera House!’. The Nose revels in its ridiculousness.
Yet, mixed with the silliness are moments of stillness: the Cathedral mourners’ mockery looms over Kovalov as he lies still on the floor; the newspaper clerks only break into their hearty ‘ha! ha! ha!’ once they have stopped still to see – and believe – Kovalov’s noselessness for themselves; and, following the nonsensical tap-dancing noses, Kovalov sleeps in silence before the chaos continues. These moments demonstrate Kovalov’s palpable desperation to be untied with his nose and to not be doubted in his despair, and perhaps that satisfaction only exists in the stillness of his dreams or a vodka stupor.
Moments of calm don’t last long, though, as soon there’s more clowning, campness and calamity, from a clumsy undressing to a simulated sex scene to a phallus on the face – The Nose drives away all seriousness with silliness, and it’s a long-awaited, real-life indulgence to laugh along with something without shame. And we aren’t the only ones laughing: the chorus are lively, animated characters who not only sing, but laugh, shake, cry and tap in time to Shostakovich’s viscerally rambunctious score that’s balanced by the beyond-visceral belching, spitting, and bareness of Kovalov in his off-white underwear.
With all this vulgarity, it would seem that The Nose cares very little about its image, but the opposite is true: as Kovalov says of his disfigurement, ‘it’s not a little loss like a little toe that can be disguised in a shoe’. His lack of nose, while ludicrous and laughable, is, at heart, humiliating. ‘A noseless man is nothing at all’; and as a noseless man, Kovalov is ashamed to be seen as part of society, especially as his nose starts to supersede him, and is even denied assistance as the newspaper won’t print an advertisement out of fear for their public reputation. The staging itself plays with image, as it opens with what appears to be the sound of sniffing, but as the curtain rises, it turns out to be the barber sharpening his blade for Kovalov’s shave – why is hair a part of you it’s acceptable to lose?
The Royal Opera House’s choice to live-stream a production suggests they may be concerned about their own image, perhaps opera’s accessibility or place in popular entertainment. The Nose proves they needn’t be. The Royal Opera, like Gogol, can sniff out a good story: one that changes and challenges and is popular with all kinds of people. Now, time for that drink…