The 2010 Met’s production of Dimitri Shostakovich’s one-act opera, The Nose, (just shown on their HD Live series) is a daring creation, designed and directed by William Kentridge. The 1928 satiric opera based on a Gogol story about a Russian bureaucrat whose nose goes missing and develops a life of its own. The Met production captures magnificently the absurd expressionism of both the story and the score.
South African modernist William Kentridge (assisted by Luc De Wit) has created a brilliant, almost Brechtian concept for Shostakovich’s bizarre tale. The décor -on which Sabine Theunissen assisted with scenery and Catherine Meyburgh with projections – consists of a multi-tiered set on which the quotidian events occur and a screen with animated projections which forms the milieu for the Nose’s adventures. These elements interact simultaneously, the film commenting on reality like a choreographed chorus; the effect is to heighten the schizophrenic split experienced by the main character, as well as to create the Pirandello-esque dichotomy of illusion and truth. Kentridge makes use of Brechtian conventions such as words flashed across the screen, augmented by an ongoing background of newspaper print- the world of daily reality punctuated by the grotesque adventures of the disembodied nose. Not only do Kentridge’s images evoke the jarring, provocative visual world of Brecht, but they are rich in allusions to other early modernists, among them Mirò, Calder, even Picasso. And, they mirror the music perfectly, dancing with the dissonances, soaring with playful stridency.
Urs Schönebaum’s subtle lighting contributes to the kinetic effects and effectively isolates areas of the huge stage so that Kovalyov’s room and the barbershop, for example, seem like kernels suspended in space, allowing the secondary plane of action- the film screen to prevail. Greta Goiris ’ costumes are sculptural in a larger-than-life sense, and she creates modernist masks for members of the chorus that contribute to the atmosphere of alienation so cherished by the expressionist theatre. Her palette is dominated by grays, blacks, and splashes of Bolshevik red, which all compliment the scenery effectively.
Pavel Smelkov conducts the difficult score, which combines atonality with folk music, and even popular song, with engagement and panache. That Shostakovich was listening not only to Stravinsky buy also to Berg is evident in the canons and quartets he employs as well as the reliance on percussion and the massive choruses. The entire over two-hour work is a virtuosic outpouring of instrumental and vocal acrobatics, anchored by the more melodic baritone role of the protagonist.
As Kovalyov, the official who is bereft of his nose, Brazilian baritone Paulo Szot gives an intensely empathetic and comic performance that succeeds in milking the absurdity of the role without descending into grotesquerie. His strong, dark instrument provides the emotional center of the opera. Andrey Popov manages the high tessitura of the Police Inspector with the appropriate metallic stridency reminiscent of Berg’s Drum Major, while Alexander Lewis as The Nose reveals a stunningly secure tenor in his single musical confrontation with Kovalyov. Vladimir Ognovenko, as the barber Ivan, Sergei Skorokhodov, as Kovalyov’s servant who gets to sing the folk melody drawn from the Brothers Karamazov , and soprano Ying Fang as Mme. Podtochina’s daughter distinguish themselves. The rest of the large supporting cast who assume multiple roles all do justice to the demands of the score and reveal themselves to be adroit theatrical performers, as well.
Indeed, one of the pleasures of this production is the integration of several singers who have stage or musical theatre resumes – Szot acclaimed for his Tony-award-winning Emile de Becque, Australian Lewis who has sung Raoul in Phantom as well as Vašek, in The Bartered Bride – as well as a large number of Russian artists, such as the Marinsky’s Popov. This decision adds measurably to the overall theatrical unity and authenticity of the production.
The Met is to be congratulated for this dazzling foray into early twentieth century modernist music and expressionist theatre and for allowing Shostakovich’s boisterous, rebellious, brilliant opera to shine!