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Shostakovich's The Nose at the Metropolitan Opera

by Robert Leeper

The Nose Ken Howard

Photo credit: Ken Howard

There are a lot of big-ticket, big-cast operas to sift through at the Metropolitan Opera these days. However, tucked between the much-touted Two Boys and some histrionic Italian opera is a revival of a 2010 production of Dmitri Shostakovich's 1927 opera, The Nose.

Based on a short story by Nikolai Gogol, Shostakovich was quite distraught by its premiere—a concert performance—as he felt the music "springs from the action." Thankfully, William Kentridge's production keeps both Gogol's pessimistic, satiric intent and Shostakovich's zany music in mind—ensuring the visuals are in line with the chaotic, off-kilter flow of the music.

The true star of the show, and no surprise here, was conductor Valery Gergiev's assessment of the poignant, sometimes terrifying score. He took every strange turn with ease and seemed to revel in every odd turn of a score that includes everything from folk music to atonality, ultimately held together by formal devices, a combination of forms, and a sense of complete tonal freedom. 

The plot features a sorry hero, Kovalyov, a mid-level collegiate assessor who finds himself noseless, most likely the doing of a drunken barber Yakovlevich—a small part played with gusto, enthusiasm, and humour by bass Vladimir Ognovenko. Setting out to find his missing nose, Kovalyov finds that his nose has grown to human size and attained the rank of state councilor, a higher rank than Kovalyov's. The opera goes on from there, as Kovalyov experiences many misadventures in his search to obtain, and eventually reattach, his nose. 

For most of the opera, the main attraction is Paulo Szot as Kovalyov. An unforgiving role that Paulo Szot
requires extended concentration and energy with little reward in opportunities for virtuosic showmanship, Szot sometimes seemed to have trouble carrying throughout the hall, but his charismatic and comedic performance made him a strong Kovalyov.

Also of great note was Andrey Popov as the police inspector; his odd sense of comedy fit in perfectly with the story and music, and Popov's nasal whine made the part. The rest of the cast—all of whom played multiple parts—did a fabulous job as support. The chorus produced a gorgeous sound, creating an especially nervous, icy darkness during the Cathedral scene where Kovalyov first finds his nose while it is at prayer. 

The sheer complexity of the score makes it a feat to produce, but from top to bottom it is really a fantastic piece of drama. Kentridge's production added to Gergiev's masterful interpretation, but throw in a strong lead and supporting cast and you have a truly innovative and thought-provoking production. 

The final performance of The Nose is this Saturday, October 26