It’s difficult to argue with the blindingly obvious, especially in these troubled times: “This world is full of the most outrageous nonsense.” Such was the judgement in Nikolai Gogol’s short story The Nose, which provided most of the libretto for Shostakovich’s early opera of the same name. He composed it just after the premiere of his Second Symphony in 1927, the radical nature of which is reflected in this highly inventive and unusual operatic score.

Bo Skovhus (Kovalyov) and Bernhard Berchtold (The Nose)
© Arno Declair

It was the musical side of this new production at Staatsoper Hamburg which put everything else in the shade. Kent Nagano directed his chamber-sized forces with a keen ear for transparency and colour, achieving delicate glissando effects from harps and percussion, and highlighting the sliding double basses that accompany the barber’s shaving activities. Instrumental raspberries were deliciously blown. Like all good musical magpies, Shostakovich assembles a swag bag of contrasting ideas – grotesque marches, merry polkas, whistles and squeaks, an aria for tenor and balalaika – to provide rhythmic variety and contrasting textures. Above all, it is the nine percussion players who revel in his many novelties, not only in the early vestiges of what came to be known as “industrial music” but in the stroke of genius which has them seated centre-stage for a virtuosic entr’acte to the second scene. One example of Nagano’s sensitive attention to detail was his coaxing of soft but sinister-sounding undercurrents of energy from the strings whenever the action was at its most unsettling.

Which brings us to the central question in this work. Is it a frothy concoction of silliness and comic absurdity, or something more hair-raising and profound? Gogol clearly had few doubts: “A noseless man is nothing at all” is the conclusion that the main character, Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov, arrives at. So it’s a matter of identity. Indeed, there’s a small step from Gogol’s assertion that a man without a nose is “just something to be thrown out of the window” to the ending of Kafka’s Metamorphosis (published in 1915) where Gregor Samsa is swept out of the apartment with the rest of the household rubbish.

Bo Skovhus (Kovalyov) and Levente Páll (Ivan Yakovlevich)
© Arno Declair

Unfortunately, the production sent out too many mixed messages. The opera was sung in German but the balalaika aria, delivered with fine lyrical intensity by Gideon Poppe as Kovalyov’s manservant Ivan, was in the original. There were indications that the setting had been transferred to Weimar Germany (yet with far too many anachronisms like modern swivel chairs and clipboards as well as soldiers sporting Kalashnikovs) though not consistently so. Indeed, nothing was carried through with much sense of overall coherence. The Russian word nos when spelled backwards means “dream” or “sleep”, so there was some justification for injecting dream-like episodes that relied on video projections (even with the incongruity of the nose going walkabout and admiring the landmarks in modern-day Hamburg), but these contrasted sharply with the goose-stepping antics and Hitlerian salutes of a military regime far removed from Tsarist times. There were attempts to spice up the libretto, including one clever pun: at one stage Kovalyov, in a backward reference to the horrors of gueules cassées, bemoans his “denosification” (the German is much closer in sound to “denazification”) and claims that if he had had his nose blown away in the war he would at least have ended up with a medal.

Andreas Conrad (Police Inspector) and Levente Páll (Ivan Yakovlevich)
© Arno Declair

The action was presented on a revolving stage dominated by metallic structures and staircases and extending to industrial kitchen units which served as the desks of journalists and later as a candle-lit altar. A gigantic shaving-mirror provided a projection screen for the inevitably floating eye, individual poles at the side of the stage featured an upturned boot, a lifebelt and a lump of dough (or was this perhaps the decaying head on a stake of an executed enemy of the state?). The stage floor was littered with scraps of red fabric (autumn leaves? blood?). Symbols as far as the eye could see, but taken together far too visually distracting. Sleaze rather than oppression was the message coming from the military whose bleached uniforms stressed pecs and posteriors which, in case the accompanying sexual undertones had failed to register properly, came into their own in a group masturbation scene.

This is an opera in which recitative is the main structural element. Bo Skovhus as Kovalyov used his warm and vibrant baritone to good effect to convey the trauma of his loss, being especially effective in his struggle to enlist the help of the police inspector (sung with the right degree of cloying self-importance by Andreas Conrad) as well as in his exchanges with Levente Páll (doubling up as both editor and doctor), who bristled with appropriate vocal arrogance. In a work written for 26 principals and a large chorus (often hyperactive and ultimately underpowered) its ensemble character was the defining impression.