Barrie Kosky has once again set the cat among the pigeons in a provocative staging of Shostakovich’s The Nose for Opera Australia. With its castration-themed, surreal plot about a dismembered nose that goes walking down the streets of St. Petersburg, this was always going to be a ripe target for the Australian director. As audiences have come to expect from his Mozart, Rameau and most recently Saul last year Adelaide, he brings a characteristic hyper-dramatic, surrealist edge to stage directing, and this was no less the case in The Nose.
Ten tap dancers costumed in grotesquely large, fungi-like noses was Kosky’s masterstroke this time, but there was much else to praise. The Sydney Morning Herald’s Peter McCallum praised the high farce of Otto Pichler’s choreography and delighted in the production’s “energised theatre, incongruity and riotous imagination”. The only question was whether Kosky might have pressed the excess button a bit too often this time. Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore of The Guardian felt he did. She described The Nose as “a wild, grotesque, frenzied production that is both surreal and sardonic”, but confessed she “ached for less in-your-face farce” and missed “a sense of the true fear and true pain that Shostakovich seemed to so badly want to portray”.
As William Blake said, “The road to excess leads to the palace of wisdom”, this is seems to sum up Kosky’s approach. He chooses over-the-top methods for ramming home the truth: his characters are cartoonish and comical, and he constantly courts the sensational while conscientiously avoiding the literal. It could sound like a recipe for vacuousness, but Kosky seems to have a knack of knowing how farce makes storytelling stronger and silliness actually adds to intellectual weight.
All of which places him at the forefront of the new surrealism, as it might be dubbed. His decadent, warped worlds recall Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera, Martinů’s Julietta and Menotti’s Labyrinth, and the vivid force of his work owes to cinema. Thomas Adès did as much in his celebrated opera, The Exterminating Angel of 2016. Based on the classic 1962 Luis Buñuel movie, it has comedy violently colliding with nightmare – the composer himself described it as “quite close to Monty Python”.
It seems only fitting that a healthy dose of subversive Aussie larrikinism, courtesy of Kosky, could give surrealism a new impact on the operatic stage.
The Nose finishes at the Sydney Opera House on 3 March.