WASHINGTON, October 31, 2013 – The Met’s simulcast of their current production of “The Nose”—Dmitri Shostakovich’s operatic take on Nikolai Gogol’s 1836 absurdist short story of the same name—offered non-New York opera fans a fascinating and highly inventive opportunity to see and hear a work that for many reasons has been virtually impossible to see for nearly a century.
Composed when he was only 22, “The Nose” was a bold, modernist, provocative statement by the young composer during the early years of Stalinism, a time when all classical music compositions were favored, just as long as they sounded like Tchaikovsky.
Not ten crashing seconds into “The Nose,” however, we can easily see that Tchaikovsky was not where Shostakovich was headed in this noisy, almost insane work, which is nothing less than a rough, aggressive, brutalist attack on the idiocy of modern life and bureaucracy. And on Romantic music for that matter.
The Stalinists did not love it. It disappeared from the scene almost immediately and its score was for a time even thought to have been lost until some enterprising musicians in the somewhat gentler Soviet 1970s resurrected it and staged its first contemporary full performance in 1974 with the aging composer in the audience.
For last weekend’s simulcast, the Met went with its current production of “The Nose,” a reprise of its widely praised 2010 production, even to the point of bringing back Paulo Szot, who originated his unique interpretation of the opera’s central character, the hapless bureaucrat Kovalyov. He was sensational, both as a thespian (he’s also performed on Broadway) and a vocalist in a part that gets a real workout during his character’s considerable time on stage.
“The Nose” is brash, extraordinarily noisy and percussive and, in short, just the sort of composition a young composer puts out there to gain in fame and notoriety. Shostakovich accomplished precisely that. But, unfortunately, the opera’s reception was the beginning of his never-ending and at times life-threatening relationship with the Kremlin.
Yet even today, this opera comes across musically as if it’s daring officials to throw down a penalty flag for unnecessary roughness. Verdi, this ain’t.
That said, in retrospect, it certainly does characterize musically, in many respects, the life and times of the brutal Soviet Union as it entered upon the dangerous decade of the 1930s. To bring this home and, in an odd way, somehow soften somewhat the heavy blow of Shostakovich’s score, the Met’s production, designed and directed by South African artist and director William Kentridge, transforms this work from a brutalist opera into a remarkable 21st century multimedia look back on a troubled country’s troubled past.
In keeping with the music’s frenetic pace, Mr. Kentridge’s stage fields a constantly shifting kaleidoscope of newspaper-centric imagery, portraying at once the endless crush of information and propaganda as well as the frenetic pace of the initial Soviet five-year plans of forced, state-directed economic activity.
The informational flow is punctuated by funky and weird abstract animations primarily involving the activities of Kovalyov’s nose, which has somehow become detached from his face and now insists upon having a life of its own, much to the consternation of its former owner. The nose actually appears from time to time as its self, a fantastic concoction of papier-mâché running about on two legs, finding only a brief interval in the early going to sing about its frantic attempts to climb the career ladder and get ahead of Kovalyov.
It’s all insane, really, but made madly coherent by Mr. Kentridge’s sets (which he co-designed with Sabine Theunissen), animations, and imagery, turning “The Nose” into an almost perfect set piece for showing inside a movie theater. It’s music, acting, art, and cartooning rolled into one finding perhaps its perfect venue not even in the Lincoln Center but in the dozens of movie theaters instead that screened the work this weekend.
As we’ve already hinted, Mr. Szot gave an epic performance as the beleaguered Kovalyov, singing, mugging, and climbing to and fro in his mad attempt to capture a nose with a mind of its own. His singing was for the most part clear and forceful—a necessity since Kovalyov is constantly competing with Shostakovich’s heavy percussion artillery.
In many respects, Kovalyov is the whole show, even though this production is blessed with a large cast of extraordinary singers and a few very athletic dancers.
Shining in one of the key smaller roles was tenor Andrei Popov as the unstable Police Inspector. Many others did admirably as well in their short bits and set pieces.
Choral work is almost always an important part of Russian opera, even with Shostakovich, and the large chorus in this production performed its role admirably and with surprising precision, given the constant motion on stage.
The music itself is nearly insane, containing nearly everything but the proverbial kitchen sink. The score is primarily dissonant and/or atonal, but it also contains the composer’s usual splashes of furtive Romanticism, Russian liturgical music, circus and carnival flashes, and disrespectful blats and thunderings from the woodwinds to the percussion section, which sounded like a full division of the Soviet Army.
Valery Gergiev led the opening performances of this opera, but now he’s apparently platooning with Pavel Smelkov who conducted the simulcast performance and held his forces together admirably and well.
In our local venue, the Tyson’s Corner AMC Multiplex Theater Complex in northern Virginia, the simulcast came across strong and true, experiencing none of the brief technical issues that made the opening moments of the “Eugene Onegin” simulcast a bit iffy early in the month.
The theater wasn’t nearly as crowded as it was for, well, Tchaikovsky, but that’s generally to be expected for a relatively unknown opera, particularly one composed after 1920. Nonetheless, those who attended literally witnessed a great movie-style show, something you don’t often think of when going to an opera. But this Kentridge production could be definitive for upwards of the next twenty years, so perfectly does it evoke the chaos Shostakovich was trying to express in an era that still largely remains inexpressible.
Rating: *** (3 out of 4 stars)
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