Met’s brilliant production of “The Nose” is nothing to sneeze at
When an opera company engages a successful theater director with little or no opera experience to do a new production, you can expect the potential audience to respond with a rousing ho-hum.
But put a famous visual artist with comparable inexperience into the same shoes, and the result is likely to be very different, especially if that artist is William Kentridge. His involvement with the first-ever Metropolitan Opera production of Shostakovich’s The Nose, it is fair to say, turned what would, in any case, have been a notable premiere on Friday evening into a hugely anticipated one.
The Nose, first seen in St. Petersburg in 1930, is a difficult opera to stage because it is difficult, period. Written by Shostakovich when he was only 22, it has something of a hidden agenda, or so it seems: to clinch beyond all doubt the composer’s stature as a brilliant newcomer, which the success of his First Symphony had recently established. The Nose, is something like hit two of a one-two punch.
And it can seem just as aggressive. The plot, derived from an absurdist story by Nikolay Gogol about a St. Petersburg bureaucrat named Kovalyov, who wakes up one morning to discover that his nose is absent from its accustomed position on his face, almost demands a caustic, sarcastic edge to the music. This Shostakovich supplies with breathtaking assurance. The fact that he scored the opera for a relatively small orchestra in no way constrained his imagination.
In a recent interview Kentridge said, “I do everything but paint, which is what artists are supposed to do!” The Met’s new production allows his many-faceted artistry, which includes filmmaking, ample opportunity to sparkle. The Nose challenges the producer to dazzle the eye to the extent its music dazzles the ear. Kentridge, who together with the rest of the production team made their Met debuts with this production, responds with a basic set, designed in conjunction with Sabine Theunissen and lit by Urs Schönebaum, consisting of a collage of newspaper articles, photos and headlines. It can split apart to reveal discrete locales, such as Kovalyov’s bedroom, or even accommodate characters vertically, as with the busy workers of a newspaper office.
But the set is only the beginning. Projected on it are an array of archival clips from Soviet times, one of which shows Anna Pavlova dancing with a nose-like hood superimposed on her head. Animated figures in the style of Kentridge’s charcoal drawings also appear, sometimes to reinforce the action we are witnessing, sometimes to suggest what the nose might be up to as Kovalyov frantically canvasses St. Petersburg to retrieve it. Kentridge sets the action not in Gogol’s 19th-century czarist times but during the early Communist era of the opera’s gestation. The shift tellingly plays up the hierarchical nature of Russian society prevalent under both political systems.
Kentridge, in short, succeeds in supplying a striking visual analogue to the brilliance of the music. But the genius of the production is that he also ensures that the story unfolds with remarkable lucidity. The set, with all its verbal images, supplies a welcoming home for projected supertitles in English, and each scene is graphically announced by texts that unfold in circular form, as if they were wrapped around a kiosk. Direction of the principals is crisp and to the point.
Happily, the Met has ensured that the musical representation is no less vivid than the visual. The opera’s performing tradition in modern Russia goes back only to 1974, when it was rehabilitated following decades of neglect. But Valery Gergiev’s credentials as a Shostakovich conductor are second to none, and he has acquired considerable experience with the opera since it belatedly entered the repertory of the Mariinsky Theatre in 2004. In his hands the music resounds with all its considerable assertiveness, and he knows how to make the most of key moments like the interlude for percussion instruments or the clever vocal ‘hocket’ (in which the vocal line is composed by pitches produced successively by different singers).
In his Met debut, Paolo Szot heads a huge cast of some 30 soloists deployed in nearly 80 roles. His baritone voice serves handsomely to convey Kovalyov’s frustration and emotional despair, as expressed by crocodile tears. In perhaps the shortest of all operatic title roles, tenor Gordon Gietz, another debutant, excelled in the confrontation at Kazan Cathedral when the nose, outfitted in a uniform of higher rank than Kovalyov’s, dismisses its owner contemptuously.
The cast was spiced with singers from the Mariinsky, including the outstanding young character tenor Andre Popov, who in his Met debut brought a deft touch to the stratospheric vocal lines of the Police Inspector. Two of the company’s stalwart basses were also on hand—Vladimir Ognovenko, a strong vocal presence as the barber Ivan Yakovlevich, and Gennady Bezzubenkov, in fine form as Kovalyov’s eccentric doctor, a role clearly modeled on the doctor in Berg’s Wozzeck, which took St. Petersburg—and Shostakovich—by storm just a couple of years before The Nose.
Tenor Sergei Skorokhodov sang appealingly in the balalaika-accompanied song of Kovalyov’s servant Ivan. Closer to home, Erin Morley from the Met’s young artists program brought a lovely soprano to the twin roles of the ethereal voice in the Cathedral scene and Madam Podtochina’s daughter.
For all the performance’s considerable virtues, however, there remain lingering doubts about the work itself. Prodigious though Shostakovich’s musical gifts undeniably were, he still had a lot to learn about human nature. It is easy to leave the opera house feeling like the recipient of a harangue. And you have to wonder whether making an opera out of The Nose was even a good idea. One of the most amusing scenes has no music at all. Toward the end three people discuss what they have seen. One complains, in a remark of stunning understatement, that the action is totally implausible. After further discussion, they agree that, while it is possible that the events of the opera could have occurred, it is nevertheless highly unlikely.
The Nose runs through March 25. http://www.metoperafamily.org/metopera/.