Shostakovich, The Nose. Metropolitan Opera, 3/5/2010. New production premiere by William Kentridge, conducted by Valery Gergiev with Paulo Szot (Kovalyov), Gordon Gietz (his nose), Andrei Popov (police inspector), many many other people.
Whew! That was quite an evening. Shostakovich’s first opera is an odd one, and William Kentridge’s new production at the Met is visually fantastic and appropriately individual. The AP seems to think it’s “daunting” for its few and brave audience members, but really it’s nothing of the sort, and y’all should go see it because you’ll love it.
But it is obscure, so maybe some background is in order: Shostakovich was only in his early twenties when he composed this, his first opera. The libretto is a fairly direct adaptation of the Gogol story of the same title with the exception of some added scenes in the second half of the opera. It premiered in 1930, at the tail end of an experimental era in Soviet art, just before the crackdown that infamously condemned Shostakovich’s second opera, “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.” Read Laurel Fay’s excellent, unsentimental biography for more.
The plot concerns a man who wakes up one day to find his nose is missing. He chases it all over St. Petersburg. It’s utterly absurd, and Shostakovich’s chaotic, mostly non-tonal score is equally non-sensical, at least on the surface.
The Met’s production is dominated by Kentridge’s animations, projected onto the cyclorama behind the action. They mix drawings with newspaper clippings and archival footage. The use of newspapers throughout the production is ingenious, replicating the stance of Gogol’s narrator, who is only a reporter of events he can’t quite believe. The interior scenes take place on small rolling set pieces, the exterior ones on the empty stage in front of the cyc (the projections sometimes provide suggestions of our locale, sometimes not). The animations also include a great deal of text, both in English and Russian: some enigmatic but vaguely relevant epigrams, some titles for the sung text, and some straightforward scene setting letting us know where we are.
As you can guess, it is all very busy. The animations are often the center of attention, especially when you are sitting far up like I was and they are so much bigger than the people onstage. Sometimes I found them distracting from the music, and it may be honest to say this is more Kentridge’s Nose than Shostakovich’s,* but for the most part I thought they added rather than detracted, and pick up on the montage qualities of the score. In general, both the animations and the direction of the singers showed a lot of attention to the music, even if they occasionally overshadowed it. Also, it all looks really cool.
The only character of real significance is Kovalyov, he of the missing nose, sung here by South Pacific‘s Paulo Szot. He’s got a pleasant, not particularly memorable baritone that isn’t quite big enough for the Met in this role and was inaudible occasionally. But he’s very sympathetic and likeable in what is more or less the passive reactionary (as in reacting) role, and once he (spoiler) regains his nose celebrates with a lot of charming semi-dancing that makes me wish he had been given a more dynamic role in the rest of the opera.
Szot wasn’t alone in having some musical issues. The orchestra for this opera is small, and not small but big like Ariadne, but actually small. Gergiev made it colorful and snappy like he usually does, but it all got a bit lost in the barn, and everything sounded much more distant than usual. I think the audibility problems may have been due to the projection screens, which may have been absorbing sound–all the singers sounded a bit muffled, despite the small orchestra. Things in the small downstage rooms were acoustically much better.
The many other soloists were good as well, including Andrei Popov’s very very high notes as the Police Inspector and Gordon Gietz’s almost as high notes as the Nose itself. On the female side, Erin Morley’s mini-letter aria was really lovely (and will surely sound familiar to all you Onegin fans–both are going for the romance genre).
Kentridge’s big scenes included some fantastic (in the uncanny sense) characters with masks and odd proportions whose purpose I didn’t really understand, but I’ll chalk it all up to “this is absurdist.” (See above photo.) Szot’s nose never goes missing in a literal way, which gives the reactions to its absence a sinister quality–and the giant paper-mache nose running and dancing around is also a little scary. While the story is set in Imperial Russia, the political elements of this production point at an ambiguous later era. Despite all the Russian in the animations and the occasional image of Stalin or Shostakovich, it’s very generalized, dealing with paranoia, rumor-spreading, bureaucracy, and mob mentalities that could be anywhere and any time. It’s “Kafkaesque”–Kovalyov could be Josef K.–in a way that actually feels appropriate and informative for the work, unlike, um, say, Les Contes d’Hoffmann. It’s abstract but creates a coherent world for the work in a visually compelling way. So it’s a winner for me.
A few words about the “daunting” bit espoused by the AP: AP, you are WRONG. For an audience whose only cultural consumption is Rigoletto, the musical and dramatic language of The Nose is challenging. But for anyone even vaguely familiar with modern literature, theater, or film it is probably a heck of a lot more accessible than Lucia di Lammermoor. Culturally literate people who think opera is not for them should all see this, it’s entirely unstuffy, it’s funny, it’s short, it’s visually memorable. Seriously, I don’t get it, AP (but thanks for all the pictures, which I stole). The Awl has a good piece explaining why you should go see this, if I haven’t convinced you. Really, go.
Next: Too many premieres recently, I’m tiiiiired. Off next week, but after that, Hamlet or not to Hamlet, that is the question. Answer is unclear. I like Keenlyside but think the opera is pretty boring. Shame it’s getting an HD broadcast and not The Nose. If not, until L’Étoile at the City Opera.
*According to the piece on Kentridge in The New Yorker, the nose IS in fact modeled on Kentridge’s own, so there.
Photos by Bebeto Matthews/Associated Press.