The (Amazing) Nose

And no wonder! The three act work, performed in a single two hour sitting,
offers its audiences an unflinching, unremitting, intriguing, absurdist
panorama of sight and sound.

What is it about? Let me put it this way. Have you ever, in a moment of
cultural delirium thought of what Nicolai Gogol and Dmitri Shostakovich’s
Nose and Jerry Seinfeld might have in common? If you said,
“Nothing,” you’d be absolutely, perfectly right. Proof: D.S. Mirsky, the
late Russian literary critic, wrote, “In [The Nose] more than
anywhere else Gogol displays his extraordinary magic power of making great
comic art out of nothing.” And you know how the Seinfeld show has been
touted. Where Gogol and Shostakovich part company with Seinfeld’s
“nothingness” is in their sharper, less charitable and tolerant views of
human frailties.

Excerpt from Scene 3 (Act I)

So one day a barber discovers the nose of one of his customers — a self
centered, unmarried petty official, in a freshly baked roll. The baker’s
attempts to dispose of it meet with failure. The nose escapes and creates a
highly successful and joyful life for itself. Really and truly, there’s a
nose with legs prancing about the stage. Meanwhile, waking to discover his
loss, the distraught official, named Kovalyov (please note that his first name
is Platon (Plato) attempts to recover his appendage. Of course, you’d go to
the police or advertise for information in a newspaper if that happened to you)
But no one seems inclined to deal seriously with Kovalyov’s quest. And when
he encounters his nose in church, the haughty appendage, having achieved even
higher bureaucratic status than his own, refuses to discuss the matter with
him. But fear not, there’s a happy ending.

Shostakovitch, who was born in 1906, completed The Nose when he was
only 22. An exceptional pianist, he had been admitted to the St Petersburg
conservatory at 13, by its director Alexander Glazunov, and was known there for
his good spirits, love of language and literature, and an interest in the
absurd. Those were the early years of the Russian revolution, marked with new
freedom for composers, as for all artists anxious to cut loose from bourgeois
values. Shostakovich’s operatic pen ran rampant. In addition to using popular
and folk tunes, and writing voice parts for more than seventy roles, he created
a virtual non stop orchestral display of dissonance, spikey intervals, bizarre
rhythms, and extraordinary percussive interludes that presage the enormously
powerful percussive effects found in his later scores. One way to appreciate
the composer’s interpretative achievement is to read the Gogol story.
Gogol’s satiric voice, his descriptions of the attitudes and thoughts of its
many characters, are clearly translated into Shostakovich’s antic music.
Nevertheless, instead of the pleasure the young composer might have anticipated
from the work, it immediately brought denunciation, the first of many his
native land was to heap on him. The opera was considered “formalist” —
too western, too modern, too elitist for peasants and workers. A staged
performance in 1930, only reinforced official condemnation and The
was not performed in the Soviet Union until just month’s before
Shostakovich’s death.

Excerpt from Scene 4 (Act I)

But please don’t listen to The Nose for its music. That’s not
my advice. It’s Shostakovich’s. He disapproved of presenting the 1929
concert version of The Nose . “The Nose loses all meaning if it is
seen just as a musical composition. The music springs only from the action. It
is clear to me that a concert performance of The Nose will destroy

William Kentridge, the South African artist, who suggested The Nose
for his debut production with the Metropolitan Opera, is a man attuned to the
grotesquery and absurdism of story and score – clearly kindred to the writer
and composer. As with Shostakovich’s music, one is hard pressed to detail the
individual elements or inventive combination of techniques which energized
Kentridge’s production. Under Kentridge’s and Luc De Wit’s direction,
with sets designed by Kentridge and Sabine Theunissen, the stage was in
perpetual motion for two hours. The nose was a black silhouette, a white
triangle with human legs. It rode horses, traveled in carriages, went to
church. Cubbyhole rooms morphed into huge panoramic scenes. In a brilliant
touch, Kentridge stacked narrow minded newspaper people vertically at desks on
a center stage panel. Projections, prints, banners, newspapers, old film,
sometimes layered one atop another, sometimes giving way to one another,
sometimes in English, sometimes in Russian, filled the background of the stage.
Projected silhouettes of Anna Pavlova with the large nose as her head, dancing
each time Kovalyov tried to reattach the small restored nose to his face, were
particularly comical. Among the amusing costumes by Greta Goiris, were the
soldiers gray uniforms “armed” with huge red panels at the back, with which
they beat the giant nose down to decent facial size, and the “bagel
lady’s” hoops, adorned with the names of her wares in Russian and English.
My only objection to all that nonstop visual fun was that it difficult to focus
much attention on the music. Fortunately, I was able to see the opera twice.

The opera was sung in Russian. The primary role of Kovalyov was taken by
Paulo Szot, who also sang the role in the Met’s 2010 production. In addition
to his mellifluous baritone, Szot’s comical acting was pitch perfect in what
could be an overdone farcical role. Andrey Popov, who sang the police inspector
in a punishing tenor tessitura just one degree south of shouting, which
Shostakovich thought appropriate for a haughty police person, delivered his
lines with clarity and aplomb. Australian Alexander Lewis was properly elegant
when required to represent the proboscis as a person with a tenor voice.
Vladimir Ognovenko, a bass who has sung commanding roles such as Boris and
Mefistofeles, was a splendidly unpleasant barber. And Ying Fang, a member of
the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program made a
charming debut in the opera’s only extended lyric moments, as a young woman
to whom Kovalyov is attracted. Conductor Pavel Smelkov, himself a composer, who
had previously conducted the opera at the Met and elsewhere, led a crisp

Orchestral interlude from Act I

One last sentimental note about Shostakovich and The Nose. The
opera remained one of the composer’s favorite works. He is said to have
judged people by their fondness for it. When it was revived in the Soviet Union
nearly fifty years after it’s first and only performance, Shostakovich
attended rehearsals and the premiere. There is a poignant You Tube video on the
Internet (which dates the rehearsal in 1975) showing not only segments of that
performance, but the dour 69 year old composer at the rehearsal eventually
singing the words, then smiling and finally moving to the music. At the
conclusion he rises to accept thunderous applause. Shostakovich died in August
of 1975.

Estelle Gilson

Cast and production information:

Kovalyov:Paolo Szot; Police Inspector:Anfrey Popov; The Nose:Anthony
Lewis. Conductor:Pavel Smelkov. Production: William Kentridge. Stage Directors:
William Kentridge and Luc De Wit. Set Designers: William Kentridge and Sabine
Theuunissen. Costume Designer:Greta Goiris. Video Compositor and Editor:
Katherine Meyburgh. Lighting Designer: Urs Schˆnebaum.

image_description=Dina Rose Rivera as A Pretty Lady and Paulo Szot as Kovalyov [Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera]
product_title=Amazing Nose
product_by=A review by Estelle Gilson
product_id=Above: Dina Rose Rivera as A Pretty Lady and Paulo Szot as Kovalyov [Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera]