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The Nose review at Royal Opera House, London – ‘fast and furious’

Martin Winkler in The Nose at the Royal Opera House. Photo: Bill Cooper
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The hottest property amongst contemporary opera directors is Barrie Kosky, the 49-year-old Australian who runs Berlin’s Komische Oper. His Covent Garden debut comes with the company’s first ever production of Shostakovich’s absurdist comedy The Nose, written when the Russian composer was just 21.

It tells a bizarre tale about a civil servant called Kovalov, who wakes up one morning to discover that his nose is missing and who spends the rest of the three-act opera – played here without an interval – haring around St Petersburg trying to locate it.

The Nose itself, meanwhile – performed by dancer Ilan Galkoff – engages in adventures of its own before the two are eventually reunited.

The tone is necessarily comic-grotesque, and Shostakovich must have had fun writing a large-scale score that is noisy, abrasive and which breaks all the rules: musical highlights include an interlude for percussion only. That said, and despite Kosky’s assertion that “the piece is about fear and loss and paranoia, about body parts and sexuality and castration”, it’s hard to engage with other than on the level of an extended joke.

Kosky and his design team, however, come up with enough visual invention to keep you happy for a couple of outlandishly colourful hours. A ballet of 11 tap-dancing noses – even if not envisaged by the composer – proves an unforgettable image.

The cast is tireless and often memorable, with the nervous tics of Martin Winkler’s Kovalov, John Tomlinson’s versatile tripling up as the Barber, Newspaper Office Clerk and the Doctor, and Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke’s irrepressibly funny Servant, as well as the four other small parts he takes on (there are 77 in all) registering with particular success.

But everyone has a ball in this fast and furious entertainment, vigorously conducted by Ingo Metzmacher and wisely sung in a clever English translation courtesy of David Pountney.

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Barrie Kosky’s manic staging of Shostakovich’s surreal comedy hits the ground running