Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, NY; October 8, 2013—Shostakovich’s first opera, The Nose, was first presented at the Met in this current production in March, 2010. Unquestionably one of the strangest works in the repertory, it was a great success, due in no small part to the brilliant, innovative, surreal production by South African artist William Kentridge, whose sets, in conjunction with Sabine Theunissen, are ever-changing and wildly entertaining.
The plot, to be brief, concerns a man, a petty bureaucrat named Kovalyov, who awakens one morning and discovers that his nose is gone. Could his barber, Yakovlevich, have slipped? We’re not told, nor does Gogol, who wrote the short story upon which the opera is based, ever explain. The Nose becomes the size of a smallish person and becomes a state councilor, which, bureaucratically speaking, is a rank higher than our noseless hero. Most of the opera is taken up with Kovalyov attempting to corner the nose (so to speak) and reattach it.
The Nose confronts its prior owner in a cathedral and mocks him. A newspaper refuses to place an ad for Kovalyov’s nose—the editor, in consolation, offers the poor man some snuff as he leaves. The Nose eventually finds its way back to its face, without explanation—a policeman catches it running for a train.
The 20-year-old composer matched the absurdities of the plot with musical absurdities—balalaikas, xylophones, bits of melody, and smashes, tinkles, and booms abound. Every bullet in a young composer’s arsenal is brought out, tonally and atonally. There are waltzes, there is music that would be comfortable in a circus. You can’t hum it, but you also can’t stop watching and listening. And magically, what you see—in all its irrationality—is what Shostakovich makes you hear.
The sets are made up of backdrops of old film footage—Stalin, Shostakovich at the piano—and the set is multi-tiered, with windows popping open for brief scenes. Red, white, and black are predominant; stop-action animation fascinates. There are puppets and a man dressed as the Nose; drawings appear in front of our eyes. There are red flags aplenty. Of course, at the time of the opera’s composition Russia was a hotbed of bureaucracy, and everyone understood the satire—and the government disapproved. The 16 scenes go by in 110 minutes: there’s no time to think. It’s an exercise in controlled hysteria.
Much of the cast is the same as at the Met premiere three years ago, and all are splendid in this difficult music, where timing is as crucial as anything else. There are more than 70 solo roles in the work, sung here by close to 30 singers. Baritone Paolo Szot as Kovalyov has a handsome voice—not that the role requires much tonal loveliness, but it is a bonus. He acts, physically and vocally, with agility and charm, gloriously expressing the character’s exasperation. The ridiculously high tenor role of the Police Inspector, which comes close to screaming, was taken well by Andrey Popov; another tenor, Sergei Shorokhodov, shone as Ivan, Kovalyov’s servant: he has the loveliest number in the score, a type of romanza with balalaika accompaniment. The Nose was mockingly sung by Alexander Lewis. The cathedral scene features a soprano singing wordlessly over a wordless chorus—Ying Fang was soaring in the part.
Conductor Valery Gergiev was in his element, bringing out Shostakovich’s broad, wild swaths of sound, and the Met Orchestra played brilliantly. Try to catch one of the last four performances (through October 26); you may not get another chance soon, and it’s an unforgettable experience.