“You won’t see that at Evita,” one garishly costumed performer bellowed above the cacophonous The Nose on opening night.
Lyndon Terracini, artistic director of Opera Australia who commissioned both this rarely performed Russian romp and a remount of the Andrew Lloyd Webber hit to come later this season, seemed almost stung by the gag at the post-show party. He shouldn’t have been. The merits of Evita in an opera season aside, that this wildly imaginative Nose squats at the other end of the stage spectrum is exactly why its presence should be celebrated.
Perhaps Sydney wasn’t ready for a Barrie Kosky Nose until now.
Co-producing this expensive new production with three other international houses, including its director Barrie Kosky’s progressive Komische Oper in Berlin, is a big risk for an artistic boss often accused of not taking enough of them. If it doesn’t pay off financially (it plays just five times in the Joan Sutherland Theatre, compared to the long runs of more traditional fare) it, like King Roger last year, certainly elevates the company and its artists at a time when there is, quite rightly, particular scrutiny around heritage arts and the amount of government money they greedily gobble up.
The Nose challenges Australian artists as much as the audience – an exercise that might well disappear up its own posterior if it didn’t also have a nose for pure eye-widening entertainment.
If it’s not Evita, and it most certainly is not, it’s hard to describe what exactly this thing is.
It is Russian opera, inevitably a pot of European tradition boiled with folk characteristics. But Tchaikovsky or Stravinsky it is not. Nor is it Shostakovich, really, at least of his later more popular opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District or his distinctive classical repertoire. This Shostakovich is just 20, a precocious talent brandishing a score as evocative as it’s bellicosely tuneless and fiendishly time signature-shifting.
Its story – a hapless bureaucrat chasing after his fugitive proboscis – mixes a Chekhovian melancholy with a Gogolian morality and hyper-surrealism (Nikolai Gogol’s short story was the source). The libretto has been translated by Brit, David Pountney with care, and injected with particularly colloquial flourish for this Australian season.
And then there’s Kosky. The complicated reasons as to why this is his first piece under the Opera House sails in 17 years have been explored extensively elsewhere. Suffice to say, Sydney perhaps wasn’t ready for a Kosky Nose until now.
What he does with this work is nothing short of resuscitative. It simply couldn’t exist in 2018 without him. It also makes the work even more challenging to categorise.
It owes something to its Russian origins, the French school of clowning, the British pantomime tradition, even the cabaret of the Weimar Republic; theatre that is classic, epic, absurd and real at once.
Non-opera-goers won’t know what hit them. Uniquely, impressively, the opera faithful won’t either.
Not that it really adds up to much, at least dramatically. Even Kosky might admit that, try as he might, with the help of his gamely devoted cast, to draw out pathos. And there’s no time to search for meaning anyway; up and down the curtain goes to reveal each silly scenario, with portentous scenery (set and lighting by Klaus Grünberg) decorated by dazzlingly frazzled costumes (Buki Shiff) and constant, dizzying movement (choreographed by Otto Pichler). The Opera Australia chorus, all horned by prosthetic noses, has rarely worked so hard.
The same might be said of the many principals, too. They include Australian scene-stealers Antoinette Halloran, Alexander Lewis, Jacqui Dark and, most zanily, Kanen Breen, whose usual countertenor chords are pushed to new lows and highs, sometimes in the same phrase.
As for the man without a nose, Austrian Martin Winkler, he’s been shipped in from the Royal Opera production in London, delivering a masterclass not just in rich bass-baritone singing but all-body performance that can elicit laughs from a mere muscle move. He is tireless and terrific, rising high above the tricked-up stage heaving with performers and the discordant din of noise (successfully carolled and conducted, somehow, by Italian OA regular Andrea Molino)
And while there may be no interval in its 130-minute running time, there is a long break to accommodate a chorus line of leggy noses tap dancing. Deliverance comes in many bizarre forms.
Non-opera-goers won’t know what hit them. Uniquely, impressively, the opera faithful won’t either. And that’s nothing to sniff at.
The Nose plays the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House on February 26, 28 and March 3
Image of Martin Winkler and OA chorus by Prudence Upton