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Ensemble

All Deception

Shostakovich's opera 'The Nose',
enjoyed by DAVID WILKINS

 

Stephen Sondheim taught us to avoid red-and-white striped poles that simultaneously advertise a close shave and the best of fresh pies! The message from Shostakovich might be that it's unwise to accuse your barber of having 'stinking' hands as he's about to stretch your skin and, with a swift slice of the blade, deprive you of unwanted hair or indeed, by drunken accident, an essential organ of sense. Sweeney Todd had an agenda; Ivan Yakovlevich has the very babushka of a hangover -- as ever -- so mistakes happen and whatever absurdity and surrealism follows is an entirely Russian phenomenon.

Jeremy Huw Williams as Kovalyov (left) and Simon Wilding as a clerk. Photo © 2006 Alastair Muir
Jeremy Huw Williams as Kovalyov (left) and Simon Wilding as a clerk. Photo © 2006 Alastair Muir

Shostakovich's The Nose is, long before the confusions of the Cold War, a mystery and an enigma within the wrappings of sheer comic nonsense. Hindsight points to Kafka, Ionesco, Chaplin and the Keystone Cops, even Monty Python, perhaps, as followers in Gogol's satirical footsteps but none of this would make any kind of (non)sense without its specific setting. Shostakovich knew that the ruthlessness of Gogol's nineteenth-century tales were equally applicable to the emerging Soviet society of the late 1920s not, necessarily, for political reasons alone but, more simply, because that is how people are and ever will be. It's an hilarious bit of vaudeville at the same time as being a clear indication of the path of pessimistic irony that was all he could follow and map for the remainder of his compositional life.

The cast of The Opera Group's production of Shostakovich's 'The Nose'. Photo © 2006 Alastair Muir
The cast of The Opera Group's production of Shostakovich's 'The Nose'. Photo © 2006 Alastair Muir

The Opera Group's production seems to do everything it can to encourage the side-splitting comedy while always allowing the music to linger in the mind with the doubts and ambiguities of a story that's too ridiculous for words but never without a sniff (the audience are assumed not to have olfactory challenges) of the profound. On many levels this is a very difficult opera to present. James Fulljames' direction, Patrick Bailey's conducting and, very relevantly, the English translation they have constructed with Gary Yershon, make for a fabulous theatrical experience. It runs tight and short (less than two hours with an interval) and I have to say that I was captivated from the first orchestral 'call to attention' to the final 'bang' -- byebye! The audience in Brighton loved it -- as, I'm sure, any audience would anywhere.

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Copyright © 23 May 2006 David Wilkins, Eastbourne UK

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