Losing your nose – even without pain and blood – means losing your identity. Correspondingly desperate, the Petersburg official Kovalev runs after his nose, which has since become self-employed as a state councilor and thus seems superior to him. In his desperation at being excluded from society, he reaped nothing but scorn and indifference.
Dmitri Shostakovich made his first opera from Nikolai Gogol’s novella “The Nose” in 1928 and, with the strong self-confidence of a 22-year-old, presented it to a society thirsty for artistic and political innovation. However, referring back to Gogol’s birthplace of surrealism, those in power rightly suspected the escape from particularly atypical subjects of Soviet opera and therefore also criticized the “nose” for the lack of a positive hero. Consequently, “The Nose” also entered the international repertoire because for 44 years it shared the fate of “Lady Macbeth of Mzensk” of being suppressed by the state.
The opera was last seen in Dresden in 1986, directed by Joachim Herz. Now she is bringing star director Peter Konwitschny back to the Semperbühne. His stage and costume designer Helmut Brade divides these into a chessboard pattern from which the individual, film-like scenes can emerge and disappear again with a great deal of stage machinery.
That is also the first indication of Konwitschny’s reading: all his protagonists are pawns who are more driven by the insane story than they are driving it themselves. The secret police, only hinted at in the original for reasons of self-protection, are omnipresent, and they follow even the slightest suspicion with the most severe consequences.
Bo Skovhus sings and mimics the Denose with an almost athletic breathlessness, although his changeable voice is sometimes covered by the orchestra. His Kovalyov runs, dances and jumps over hurdles, but reveals little intellectual strength – a brilliant performance by the Danish baritone. Just like the other characters, the secret police, whom Shostakovich ridicules with insanely high tones, come across as perfectly fitting cogs in the machine whose main task is not their own thinking, but functioning.
Shostakovich’s strong, serious music is perhaps the first evidence of his brilliant artistic personality. And he has a good advocate: at the podium of the Sächsische Staatskapelle, Petr Popelka puts all his energy into the task of giving this music its due: with precise, brutal interjections, stupendous brass glissandi, irrationally fast string runs. Although sometimes a bit over-ambitious in terms of the phone volume, Popelka tells with the music what Shostakovich has diagnosed in a well-enclosed, razor-sharp manner (again on July 7th, 10th and 13th).
Now the grotesque is perhaps the most effective means of reacting to a world that has gone haywire. Konwitschny reduces what is happening on stage to a few hints of scenic design, otherwise lets the text and Shostakovich’s ingenious music do the talking. He doesn’t pity his anti-hero Kovalyov, but he doesn’t make him look ridiculous either: like many victims of a despotic system, the civil servant accidentally falls into the focus of the reasons of state that smell hostility everywhere and is the only one who wears his natural nose, while everyone else has a red one have clown noses.
This obvious but very compelling image quickly conveys that the discourse about what is “right” and “normal” is ultimately just as random as any positivist order. Konwitschny underscores this aspect by moving the second half of the evening, after Kovalev’s fictitious suicide, to a not accidentally blue and yellow celestial paradise, where even God, Jesus and the devil cannot help with the rehabilitation of humans, but only the despicable Mammon and consumerism rule. The nose returns almost by itself, but the restored “order” remains a claim.