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A Surreal Evening

MIKE WHEELER reports from the Buxton Festival


'I say, I say, I say, my dog's got no nose.' Neither has Platon Kuzmich Kovalyov. He's woken up to find it missing, and goes off in panic-stricken search of it, carefully avoiding all his friends and acquaintances -- because, you see, losing your nose is like losing your identity -- and he finds it in Kazan Cathedral, only it's grown to the size of a man, and it's wearing the cape and plumed hat of a State Councillor, and how do you address a nose when it's superior in status to you, even though it's your own (or was, until this morning) ...?

You'll have gathered by now that Shostakovich's The Nose is not your average romantic opera -- verismo it most definitely ain't. Gogol's 1836 satire on the absurdities of Russian officialdom was tailor-made for the young composer's exuberantly experimental 1920s modernism. He responded with a high-energy, knockabout score which drew on his experience as a silent-cinema pianist, and the result resembles nothing so much as a live-action cartoon, with Shostakovich's loony tunes underscoring every last twitch, grunt and yawn to perfection.

The Opera Group [19 July 2006, Buxton Opera House, UK] threw themselves into their production with extraordinary musical and visual energy (on one of the hottest nights of the year, too). The hard-working nine-strong cast played all the roles, a logistical miracle that involved no musical cuts and some remarkably quick costume changes. Jeremy Huw Williams' Kovalyov had a nice line in quiet desperation, and, when Shostakovich gave him the chance, some broadly phrased, lyrical singing. The vocal writing is often insanely high, but the singers seemed to take it all in their manic stride. Conductor Patrick Bailey's reduced orchestration ingeniously managed to retain Shostakovich's original percussion section intact, thanks to some instrumental doubling almost as frantic as that on stage.

Designer Alex Lowde placed much of the action inside a large metal cage with removable front and back walls and covered in transparent or reflective panels whose crazy angles offered a visual counterpart to the dislocated world inside.

The Opera Group billed this as 'probably the funniest opera in the world'. While it may not have been as side-splittingly hilarious as I was expecting, it was still a delight for connoisseurs of the absurd. Leaving the Opera House during the interval to find an English morris dance side in action in the square outside somehow only served to heighten an already surreal evening.

Copyright © 29 July 2006 Mike Wheeler, Derby UK







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