Richard Bratby

A night at the circus

Plus: a must-see new production of Billy Budd from Opera North, with a spine-tingling chorus and a gripping production

A night at the circus
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The Nose

Royal Opera House, in rep until 9 November

Billy Budd

Opera North, touring until 3 December

The Royal Opera’s latest production is Shostakovich’s The Nose and to paraphrase Mark Steyn, whatever else can be said about it, you certainly get a lot of noses for your money. Noses are tossed from character to character, noses kneel in prayer and noses stroll casually past in the background. They poke through curtains, mingle in crowds, and form a high-kicking, tap-dancing all-nose chorus line. At one point, a little tiny nose toddles unaided across the vast, almost-empty stage. Around them swirls bustling, multicoloured madness: bearded ladies and moustachioed cops, women dressed like dayglo matryoshka dolls, and a couple of pigtailed cartoon Chinamen who might have wandered in from an Ellen Kent production of Turandot. It’s a regular circus.

The unseen ringmaster is the director Barrie Kosky, who’s having something of a moment in UK opera. He’s so hot right now: most recently on account of his universally adored Glyndebourne production of Handel’s Saul. That isn’t actually an opera, of course, and The Nose is hardly mainstream stuff either. Premièred in 1929, it’s Shostakovich as angry young modernist — before he had the anarchy punched out of him by Stalin. Gogol’s original story of a bureaucratic drudge whose nose quits his face to pursue an independent (and altogether more successful) career can be read as satire, but Shostakovich’s score treats it as an absurdist romp: fidgety and raucous, hurling out idea after idea to see what sticks.

Kosky takes the same approach, and it has to be said that it looks fantastic — and not just for the visual flair with which Kosky choreographs his stripping policemen or his squadrons of apparatchiks on tricycle-mounted desks. He pulls deftly in and out of focus, suddenly leaving the scene bare apart from a bread-making housewife wreathed in illuminated clouds of flour, or our hero, the hapless (and noseless) collegiate assessor Kovalov huddled self-pityingly in bed. In an opera that isn’t really about the singing, Martin Winkler’s Kovalov anchors the whole thing, and if you enjoy rubber-faced clowning, he’s a knockout: wheedling, whining, blustering to and fro in his ludicrous red velvet suit or reduced to a pale, bald face vanishing lugubriously behind a curtain. John Tomlinson is a rugged presence as Kovalov’s hygienically challenged barber and tenor Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke as the servant Ivan belts out his big entrances (literally a one-note joke) with glee. A huge cast that includes Ailish Tynan and Susan Bickley, no less, all engage spiritedly with characters who, to be honest, are barely there.

So what, ultimately, is actually there? Kosky weaves in a fairly open-ended sexual subtext, and Ingo Metzmacher, conducting, finds unsuspected reserves of lyricism in Shostakovich’s hyperactive score: hats off to the ROH Chorus, who’ve surely never exuded a more authentically rough-cut, vodka-and-oniony Russian intensity. But at around 130 minutes with no interval, absurdity alone can’t make the thing fly. Shostakovich’s comic effects — flatulent trombones and a loopy Rentaghost warbling flexatone — lose their shock value on second and third appearance. Much of the show drew chuckles rather than belly laughs: funny peculiar, not funny ha-ha. Kosky and his team have done a terrifically realised, brilliantly inventive and highly entertaining make-up job on a piece that’s just too long, by a nose.

Shostakovich’s picaresque sprawl certainly points up the sheer professionalism of Britten’s Billy Budd. That’s intended as a compliment, both to Britten’s score and E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier’s masterly libretto. The carefully plotted schematics of the drama — the set pieces, the symmetries, the opposition between dark-voiced Claggart and bright, beautiful sailor Billy — evoke Verdi’s Otello. But as with Otello, the contrivance quickly ceases to register. In a production as strong as Orpha Phelan’s new staging for Opera North, the formal structure amplifies the emotion, archetypes become living humans, and the emotional effect is overwhelming.

The sets, by Leslie Travers, sketch in the outlines of a half-remembered Nelson-era man-o’-war. A faded front wall separates Captain Vere’s present from his past, before swinging up to represent a sail, something it does singularly badly. That’s the only real miscalculation in a thoughtful, atmospheric and grippingly tense production that focuses principally on the loneliness of Vere’s command: Alan Oke’s detailed performance suggests a man excruciatingly aware of the invisible barrier that separates him from his crew. Roderick Williams’s Billy is no sacrificial lamb. Sunny, cocksure and ready with his fists, his singing in his final, pre-hanging monologue has a Schubert-like concentration and beauty. As Claggart, Alastair Miles makes his noble baritone turn black and oily as he slithers down his range. These three central performances are surrounded by a sharply characterised cast (Stephen Richardson’s Dansker every inch the heart of oak), and conducted with symphonic tautness and truly oceanic sweep by the underrated Garry Walker. The chorus, in particular, is spine-tingling. This is seriously good; please, just go and see it.