Satiric Shostakovich returns with Met’s brash revival of “The Nose”
When Dmitri Shostakovich’s The Nose had its stage premiere in Leningrad in 1930, one critic called it “an anarchist’s hand grenade.” Though the remark was not meant as a compliment, eighty-odd years later it still captures better than any other description the incendiary jolt of this brash and boisterous opera.
Revived at the Metropolitan Opera on Saturday afternoon, The Nose rattles conventions at every turn. Scored for a chamber orchestra of relatively modest size, it is nonetheless an exceedingly loud work, making use of fourteen different percussion instruments: one of its extended musical interludes is in fact played by unpitched percussion alone. Rude trombone slides abound. Instead of singing, cast members sometimes speak, yelp, and blow raspberries, and human laughter can take on the mechanical cadence of munitions fire. So-called “folk” instruments (domras and balalaikas) play alongside conventional “classical” forces. And the opera’s title character is neither a bewitching diva nor a swashbuckling hero but instead, yes, a nose. With a pimple for good measure.
Along with several co-writers, Shostakovich based his libretto on Nikolai Gogol’s 1836 story about Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov, who awakens one morning to find his nose missing and later tracks it down—human-sized and running amuck through Saint Petersburg. Literary critics have seen in Gogol’s tale presages of Kafka and magical realism; in 2012, on the eve of Russia’s presidential election, a Moscow erotic museum adapted Gogol’s satiric narrative as a puppet show that depicted Vladimir Putin shorn of a different part of his anatomy.
Valery Gergiev’s close association with Putin, who signed legislation in June banning “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations to minors,” drew protests from LGBTQ activists at the Met’s opening night Eugene Onegin. Judging by the angry jeers that rang down from the gallery during Gergiev’s curtain call, there were demonstrators in the house at Saturday’s matinee, too.
In musical terms he deserved no scorn. He drew a stunning array of sounds from the Met orchestra: weird rubbing noises in the early scenes of Act I; an eerie, sickly hiss of winds and strings when Kovalyov attempted without success to reattach his nose; and otherworldly whistles and squeaks of the flexatone in the opera’s closing measures.
The manic and brazenly outrageous music emanating from the pit was in admirable accord with the 2010 production by South African artist William Kentridge, with costumes by Greta Goiris and lighting by Urs Schönebaum. (Kentridge co-designed the sets with Sabine Theunissen, and Luc De Wit co-directed.) An apparently flat, static collage of newsprint and images dominates the stage; within the topsy-turvy word salad, the slogan “another kheppi ending” stands out. (It was Joseph Stalin’s preferred outcome for supposedly “revolutionary” art.) And just as Shostakovich’s music and Gogol’s story confound expectations, things on stage are not always what they seem.
Sections of the collage slide and recede to reveal cubicles (a barber’s shop, Kovalyov’s bedroom) and transform into embankments and city streets. One character enters through a ceiling, and the furiously twirling overcoats of police officers blend into the background, unnervingly coming to resemble two-dimensional decorative elements. Stop-action animations suddenly bring the graphic assemblage to life, and of course the papier-mâché nose prances and scampers and dances beguilingly. Like Gogol’s narrator, who shatters the story’s fiction by addressing readers directly, so too do Shostakovich’s characters challenge the audience, heaping scorn upon the opera’s “implausible” and nonsensical yarn.
The Met performs the three riotous, perpetual-motion acts of The Nose with one brief pause and no full intermission, making for sensory overload in fairly short order. Nonetheless, the superb cast keeps energy high and interest from evaporating.
Paulo Szot reprises his star turn as the hapless Kovalyov, singing with rich, burnished tone throughout his range and even soaring into the falsetto stratosphere. He capably embodies both the pompous functionary and the befuddled regular bloke. Andrey Popov as the police inspector neatly balances farcical verve and fearlessness in the face of Shostakovich’s punishing tessitura. Alexander Lewis summons sweetness and mystery as the walking, dancing, and singing proboscis.
The Nose has some eighty named characters, and at the Met as elsewhere nearly all are double- and triple-cast. Standouts in the ensemble included the peerless Vladimir Ognovenko in a luxury cameo as the barber Yakovlevich, brawny of tone and commanding on stage; Claudia Waite as the barber’s uproariously shrewish spouse; Ying Fang in her company début as the female voice in the cathedral, whose melismas she sang with black-diamond radiance; and Brian Kontes, Kevin Burdette, Matt Boehler, Joseph Barron, Grigory Soloviov, Philip Cokorinos, Kevin Glavin, and Christopher Job, who made atonal merriment in the opera’s famous eight-part canon.
The Nose runs through October 26. Pavel Smelkov conducts the October 17, 22, and 26 performances. The Nose will also be shown in cinemas as part of the Met’s Live in HD series on October 26, with encore showings on October 30 (United States) and November 30 (Canada). metoperafamily.org; 212-362-6000.