How Shostakovich and his co-authors remained out of the gulag after the first fully-staged production of “The Nose” is baffling. True, it hews closely to Gogol’s short story of the same name, which was written as a satire of the bureaucracy in Tsarist times, not Stalinist. Whether the censors of Shostakovich’s time were either asleep at the switch or secretly pleased, William Kentridge’s production of this opera puts the boldness of “The Nose” satire in full view.
And what a view it is! For two+ hours South African artist and filmmaker William Kentridge who produced and co-directed the opera, as well as co-creating the film projections and set design provides us with visuals, mainly films set against a backdrop of old Russian newsprint and encyclopedia page collages, that lampoon The Nose, played by Alexander Lewis, on a tear as the upper echelon bureaucrat that taunts the owner of the now noseless face where he used to reside.
He? Well, given that the word for nose in Russian is very similar to slang for male genitals it seems only fitting that we call The Nose a “he”, even though at one point he is dressed in a full tutu of a female ballerina. Keeping that linguistic similarity in mind greatly adds to one’s enjoyment of what could be called a surrealistic and Kafkaesque castration nightmare, especially when a woman bagel vendor hits the stage.
Backtracking to recap the tale—this is the story of a minor bureaucrat, Kovalyov performed by Tony Award-winning Brazilian baritone Paulo Szot, who wakes up one day without his nose.
The Nose is first found in his barber’s bread the day after he had given Kovalyov a shave. The barber attempts to rid himself of The Nose, eventually throwing it into the Neva River.
Meanwhile Kolvalyov awakens to find his nose missing.
He find The Nose, now human-sized, praying in a cathedral.
He asks The Nose to return but The Nose refuses as he is now a nose-personage of higher rank.
The Nose then slips away leaving Kolvalyov even more desperate.
He goes to police and then to place an ad in the newspaper, all to no avail but with much song and drama along the way.
The police soon get involved in the chase for The Nose under the direction of the Police Inspector played by Andrey Popov.
In a chase scene in a train station the human scale nose appears and is beaten down to size.
Not quite a happy ending yet, because Kovalyov is simply unable to re-attach The Nose, even with the help of a doctor.
He convinces himself that his ordeal was really brought on by a spell from a woman, Mme. Podtochina played by Barbara Dever, whose daughter he previously refused to marry.
He becomes disabused of this notion but not until Mme Podtochina’s daughter played by Ying Fang delights with one of the most beautiful arias in what is otherwise a heavily atonal score.
Meanwhile word is out that The Nose is on the loose and pandemonium ensues until the police restore order.
All ends well when Kovalyov awakens one morning to find his nose in its rightful place.
The barber, released from prison, arrives to give him a shave.
The hoi polloi on Nevsky Prospect reflect on the absurdity and impossibility of the tale and then conclude that it is true nonetheless, much as a stereotyped apparatchik would be expected to tow the party line no matter what.
Film images of the nose are manipulated at one point give us the visage of Shostakovich and at another time that of Stalin. These touches by Kentridge remind us that the absurd levity of this opera would likely not have come to the world after 1936 and Stalin’s Great Terror, which Shostakovich had to navigate to survive for the remainder of his life—artistic and literal.
While previous Met in HD performance such as Faust and the Ring Cycle have included imaginative sets and special effects “The Nose” now sets a new high bar. This is so visually dazzling the entire way that if there is a fault it is perhaps that it keeps us ever distracted from the score. Not quite a fault when you consider that Shostakovich himself never wanted the score performed without the comic action of the performance.
In short--Bravo! The Met’s experiment in HD Broadcast continues to delight. If the theater I have attended for years, Chicago City North 14, is used as a bellwether this experiment has been a total success in cultivating a new audience for opera. Unlike the audience of the first broadcasts, our crowd is relatively multicultural, multiracial and DEFINITELY more multi-generational compared to the broadcasts’ debut.
"The Nose" will have an encore broadcast performance on Wednesday, October 30, 6:30 PM
The Metropolitan Opera HD broadcasts continue through May. For a schedule of upcoming HD broadcasts visit the Metropolitan Opera Website.
Photos: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Videos courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera