Composer: Dmitri Shostakovich
Conductor: Valery Gergiev
Production: William Kentridge
Kovalyov: Paulo Szot
Police Inspector: Andrey Popov
The Nose: Alexander Lewis
Nobody could possibly argue that when premier Russian maestro Valery Gergiev comes to town, he does not hit the ground breathlessly running with a whirlwind schedule taking him back and forth between The Met to Carnegie Hall, effortlessly switching from one composer to another without seemingly batting much of an eyelid. That's how after catching a few glimpses of him at The Met for Eugene Onegin last week and having a much better view of his getting the job done at Carnegie Hall for his all-Stravinsky concert last Thursday, I got yet another opportunity to enjoy his sometimes-inconsistent-but-never-boring conducting back at The Met yesterday afternoon for Shostakovich's The Nose.
The Kentridge production has been deemed a winner ever since it opened in 2010, and I was curious to check out an opera that combines Gogol's 19th century absurdism and Shostakovich's 20th century iconoclasm. More prosaically, I thought that its total duration of less than two hours with no intermission sounded like a true blessing, especially when there was a beautiful October afternoon to be enjoyed outside. I was, however, less happy about the promised compactness of the performance when I realized that I would be sitting in a far Siberia corner of the orchestra section, right where the parterre overhang partially blocks view and music, and that there would be no way to escape this undesirable location at any moment. Oh well, at least I was able to get in and out of the building in a flash.
Shostakovich was only 22 years old when he wrote The Nose, but while the score unquestionably overflows with youthful energy and bustling creativity, it also shows a solid grasp of various musical styles as well as an uncanny ability to mix and transform them for maximum effect. The zany story of a man waking up without his nose, which will develop a life of its own for a little while, becomes the perfect excuse for a clever and irreverent take on Russian bureaucracy in Saint Petersburg, in all its paralyzing bloatedness, incompetence and self-importance, at the beginning of the Stalinist era. Hmmm, come to think of it, this sorry state of affairs somehow does not sound that far off these days, does it?
As the hapless collegiate assessor whose nose is simply not there one morning, Brazilian baritone Paulo Szot was back in superb physical and vocal shape. The role earned him rave reviews in the past, and it was easy to see why. His Kovalyov was an ordinary man unexpectedly thrown into an extraordinary situation, relentlessly trying to keep his sanity and recover his nose. His singing was wonderfully supple, strong and articulate, breathing a truly human dimension into the increasingly puzzled and frustrated character.
Russian tenor Andrey Popov proved again that he was totally in control of the police inspector and newcomer Australian tenor Alexander Lewis did a good job in the title role. Among the smaller roles that particularly distinguished themselves among the huge cast were Chinese soprano Ying Fang, whose luminous voice beautifully rose over the chorus in the cathedral scene and later delicately emphasized the loveliness of Mrs. Podtochina's daughter, as well as tenor Sergei Skorokhodov, who sang an attractive balalaika number as the servant Ivan.
Back in The Nose's days, Saint Petersburg may have been a rather drab place with policemen at every corner, but South African artist William Kentridge made it a visually arresting one with a constant cacophony of images, words, newspaper clips, moving projections, lights and shadows, humans and puppets, and that's obviously not counting what I could not see from the back of the opera house. On this busy stage occasionally popped up parts of a building, or a coach, or a crowd, all the more to make the actual characters appear small and insignificant. Those various surrealistic sets remained a continuous source of surprise and wonder, impeccably in tune with the unusually bizarre story and boldly fragmented music.
Speaking of the music, it is hard not to marvel at how such a brazenly innovative young composer could channel so seamlessly a writer who had lived in the same city and resented the same impenetrable bureaucracy, yes, but one century apart. Some things apparently never change. Others, on the other hand, evolve constantly, and Shostakovich certainly did his part in shaking up the musical landscape with The Nose's score, which is a tightly controlled chaos characterized by atonality, dissonance, wildness and eclecticism. No pretty aria or even a simple lyrical line is to be found for comfort, just a few references to traditional musical genres that are promptly twisted into something else for the opera's higher purpose.
Evidently on deeply familiar territory, Valery Gergiev conducted with the right amount of vigor and dedication. The Met Orchestra, which does not seem to be capable of delivering anything subpar, brilliantly dealt with the composition's numerous technical challenges and grating sounds while still managing to keep the musical performance as genuinely engaging as the theatrical production. That's when you know you have a winner indeed.