After the sensational success of his First Symphony in 1925 at the age of 19, Dmitri Shostakovich started to experiment with various other contemporary musical styles of his time such as atonality, futurism and symbolism. But essentially he developed his own language and this is what we hear in The Nose, his first opera which scored a huge hit with the public in 1930.

Günter Papendell (Kuzmich Kovalyov) and ensemble © Iko Freese | drama-berlin.de
Günter Papendell (Kuzmich Kovalyov) and ensemble
© Iko Freese | drama-berlin.de

Barrie Kosky has now brought his own production to the Komische Oper Berlin after it has already been seen at Opera Australia and The Royal Opera. In Berlin, this opera, based on a short story by Nikolai Gogol published in 1836, is sung in German in a new translation by Ulrich Lenz. It is a pity that the diction of the singers is so poor that the audience is thankful for the German surtitles.

Kosky stages the work about a small-time bureaucrat who loses his nose and goes looking for it, getting ridiculed and derided along the way, as a farce in the tradition of the absurd. It is easy to read into the story – and his direction – a myriad of fears and paranoias: fear of loss, of castration, of belonging and being liked by others, of being able to live up to conventional expectations. In the end, Kosky’s direction accentuates the absurdity of such surreal fears as a revue-like kaleidoscope of vanities.

Günter Papendell (Kuzmich Kovalyov) and ensemble © Iko Freese | drama-berlin.de
Günter Papendell (Kuzmich Kovalyov) and ensemble
© Iko Freese | drama-berlin.de

Designer Klaus Grünberg creates a nondescript, grey panorama background with the action centred on an elevated round platform, which allows for action both on the platform as well as around it. Costume designer Buki Shiff creates costumes that combine traditional late 19th-century uniforms and velvets with colourful folklore and noses in various sizes. A key element of the staging is the famous Kosky group of male dancers in excellent choreography by Otto Pichler. Whether as tap-dancing noses, bearded ladies in embroidered short dirndls or police officers, this troupe always amazes with their witty and very precise numbers, further adding to the fun element.

Günter Papendell (Platon Kuzmich Kovalyov) © Iko Freese | drama-berlin.de
Günter Papendell (Platon Kuzmich Kovalyov)
© Iko Freese | drama-berlin.de

The large cast is headed by baritone Günter Papendell as the hapless functionary Platon Kuzmich Kovalyov, who not only gives his character a plaintive voice but also acts the part with conviction. Many of the other parts are doubles or even tripled. Bass Jens Larsen is a much-loved member of the ensemble, who, with his tall, lanky frame, embodies the characters of friend Iwan/ Doctor/Editor with laconic realism. Mezzo Rosie Aldrige spans the vocal and acting range from a harried wife to pushy saleswoman to sophisticated TV host with relish. Tenors Alexander Kravets and Alexander Lewis express their distress as Eunuchs with ringing notes. The chorus, directed by David Caelius, displays its excellent acting and singing abilities in the many mass scenes where Kosky always requires individual acting from them.

Ainārs Rubiķis, the designated music director of the Komische Oper from Latvia, works his way through a score that is a brash and dissonant satirical masterpiece. Atonal and polyrhythmic, with a very large percussion section, which breaks through constantly and reminds us that life is not a bowl of cherries but something to be fought through tooth and nail. Rubiķis whips up his musicians to keep up with the sheer speed of the music, its richness of colour and bite, which is mirrored on stage by the ensemble and chorus. All this while having fun along the way, of course. 

****1