The Nose, Barbican, London

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The Independent Culture

When Shostakovich's fledgling opera The Nose was first previewed "in concert" back in 1929, the 23-year-old composer predicted that his action-packed satire would run at only "10 per cent of its potential".

When Shostakovich's fledgling opera The Nose was first previewed "in concert" back in 1929, the 23-year-old composer predicted that his action-packed satire would run at only "10 per cent of its potential". Valery Gergiev's Kirov Opera managed a significant advance on that estimate when it dragged the piece kicking and screaming into the Barbican last weekend. For starters, this huge company show (some 50 solo roles) was staged at the Mariinsky Theatre only last year, and even with the sets and costumes safely packed away back in St Petersburg, this is one production that was never going to lie down. To describe The Nose as a running gag might seem like a pun too far, but that's exactly what it is.

Gogol came up with the story. A nose leaves the face of a petty official and struts around St Petersburg, masquerading as a state councillor. Chaos ensues. But the young, rebellious and utterly fearless Shostakovich saw in its swingeing satire the politics of Soviet Russia. Corruption, bureaucracy, brutality. And if you can't beat the system, try bucking it. So that's what he did. The trouble is, The Nose, for all its ear-popping audacity, is simply too much of a good thing. It's a natural one-gag, one-act piece stretched into three. And even with a company such as this one playing, singing and acting its socks off, the point is made and made again with ever-diminishing returns.

But, my goodness, its initial impact is hard to deny. It begins with a wonky attempt at a fugue as Ivan, the barber, arrives drunk at his shop to begin another day. He finds his client's nose in his breakfast roll. But even before Edem Umerov has staggered the great distance from dressing-room to centre stage, Shostakovich's orchestra has commented none too subtly on some of his less appealing bodily functions and the tone has lowered sufficiently for the show to hit the road. As I implied earlier, it does so running.

The first of its many tactical shocks is a rampaging solo percussion interlude, a demented gallop recycled from Shostakovich's one-time day job as a pianist for silent movies. The score for The Nose seems to have been fashioned in heated response to those jerky, speeded-up, images. It's a study in caricature. Everything is out of kilter, a series of musical exclamations with voices and instruments alike pitched way out of their natural range. In the orchestra, at opposite ends of the spectrum, piccolo and contrabassoon get to be stars; among the gallery of grotesques that make up the all-singing, all-dancing cast, the District Police Inspector shrieks incessantly in an inhumanly high-tenor tessitura. Andrei Popov was amazing in the role. But then so was every last member of this high-octane ensemble.

They certainly minimised the flaws in the piece while making a meal of its mockery. And, of course, flaws apart, it's amazing hearing Shostakovich's audacious talent in its rawest state.

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