Thursday, March 18, 2010


A few days after hearing Shostakovich's The Nose at the Met Opera, you're not left singing any melodies. No, by and large it's a riot of atonal orchestral firecrackers, grinding harmonic machinery, distorted folk-dance parodies, fractured anti-arias, and bizarro-world vocal counterpoint, all of it hurled lovingly toward a vision of subversive 1920s absurdity via Nikolai Gogol. So even if it's not "catchy" in the usual sense, there's a lot in it not to forget. Plus, it's quite funny, and it's got a careening, cartoonish logic that keeps the audience laughing.

Nate and I had a grand old time taking this in, as you might imagine.

Shostakovich was all of 22 years old when he wrote The Nose, in the late 1920s, and he didn't stick with the style for long. (He grew out of it to some extent, I think, before the cultural authorities made him and everyone else drop the avant-garde shenanigans completely.) So it's a wild thing to hear: I don't know of anyone else who composed quite like this.

The performance was top-flight. What I remember most strongly is Paulo Szot, as the noseless Kovalyov, singing a couple of laments with legitimate emotional force, even as the scenes are remorselessly spiked with absurdity and lack of sympathy. Andrei Popov, tenor, is the police inspector, and he's excellent at conveying his declamatory high notes as threatening and ridiculous in equal measure.

William Kentridge's staging--generally abstract, and heavy on video projections, animations, and general chaos--is a compelling visual analogue to Shostakovich's aesthetic modus operandi, and a hoot. The opera includes a bunch of high-energy interludes between scenes, which is a great opportunity for Kentridge's animations to take hold. The title nose usually appears onstage in a full-sized, newspaper-colored nose costume, with legs in black pants and shoes. It gets to do a good deal of zany dancing around, which is also a hoot.

Operas should generally come equipped with at least one folk song accompanied by two balalaikas and a flexatone. Oh, I miss hearing it already.

Additionally, the opera inspired me to finally read a couple of Gogol stories, which are excellent. The Nose has a magnificent narrator, who at a couple of key plot points notes that the proceedings are "enveloped in mist" and cannot be explained, and then, on the story's final page, adopts a satirical critical voice and proclaims a blustery lack of understanding why anyone would write about such an event in the first place.


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