"An anarchist's hand grenade." That was one critic's denunciation of Shostakovich's first opera The Nose when it was premiered in 1930 and even now it's fair to say that there is a fair bit of shrapnel flying around. The dust won't yet have settled from the notorious interlude for solo percussion (10 players), which Valery Gergiev and his fiercely strong-willed Kirov Orchestra unleashed at the Coliseum last Thursday night. You can only imagine how that will have gone down in the former Soviet Union. Stalin won't have been tapping his toes.
The 22-year-old Shostakovich's score is a protracted and relentless cartoon of declamation and exclamation. It kicks and screams, farts and burps its way from one frantic crisis to the next, with most of its huge cast singing quite literally at the tops of their voices. It's audacious, it's irreverent, it's the work of a talented devil-may-care composer hell-bent on making his mark. But just how well it serves Gogol's short story about a minor government official, Kovalev, whose nose goes Awol, is a moot point. We're back to the old adage about using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. At 22, Shostakovich was wearing irony like a millstone. He would come to know better.
The Kirov, it seems, have not. Yuri Alexandrov's risible staging doesn't wear irony at all. So weighed down is it with its own pretensions, so obsessed is it with the "inverted logic of dreams", that the political and social and sexual satire of the piece is completely and utterly overwhelmed.
To some extent, The Nose is the ultimate castration nightmare and yet the early depiction of the barber (the excellent Alexei Tanovitsky) as a kind of grim reaper for genitalia is just one idea that goes nowhere. Others simply go too far.
Kovalev's first encounter with his missing nose takes place in Kazan Cathedral, whereupon Alexandrov and his designer Zinovy Margolin unveil their scenic coup - an outsize airframe, gutted and strip-lit, a few dozen shrouded Kirov maidens, a flying angel of death and the Nose done up like Napoleon dress-rehearsing his own Requiem. The airframe idea seems to stem from Alexandrov's naive belief that dreams are somehow airborne, that for the purposes of this staging our heads are perpetually in the clouds. We gaze down from vertiginous buildings, feeble projections create the illusion of ascent or descent. Are you still with me? Does any of this relate in any meaningful way to Gogol?
Perhaps the saddest aspect of this show is its poor production values. Money, or the lack of it, plays a part, of course, but ideas are only as good as their execution and in this respect the Kirov are stubbornly mired in the past. Performing styles in Russian opera are exactly where they were a century or more ago - except the voices aren't as special now. Granted, this is very much an ensemble piece where the impact is more collective than individual. The social anarchy of the later scenes is undoubtedly forceful: the Kirov ensemble is still a justifiable source of pride. But notwithstanding that Shostakovich was still reliant on an ungrateful declamatory style (the vocal reach of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk would come as a huge advance four years later), few voices here stood out.
Kovalev himself, the somewhat muted Vladislav Sulimsky, is well and truly upstaged (as he is in the piece) by his footman, Sergey Skorokhodov, a very bright, useful tenor voice; then there is Andrei Popov's Police Constable (initially depicted as a tiny head on a huge 20ft-tall body) gamely braving an inhumanly high tessitura that sounds like it might really have been created during a castration; and the ladies Larissa Shevchenko (Podtochina) and her daughter, Tatiana Pavlovskaya, traditionally loud, fruity and vibrant.
But when the biggest laugh is the arrival of "a respected colonel" on a pantomime camel you might be forgiven for wishing that Dr Doolittle had made an unscheduled appearance.
Shostakovich on Stage, to 29 July (0870 145 0200)Reuse content