Friday, March 19, 2010

Nosin' in the Rain

As a counterpoint to Jack's impressions of seeing Shostakovich's The Nose at the Met last weekend (in the midst of a downpour that apparently was dumped on the entire Northeast) here's my own takeaway.

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The Nose at the Met! A fun show, one worth flying across the country for, even one worth tromping around New York City under an unholy level of rainfall for.

Shostakovich and his various credited co-librettists stick closely to Nikolai Gogol's nineteenth-century story of the same name, an absurdist satire in which the nose of a Russian civil officer, Kovalyov, leaves his face under mysterious circumstances and impersonates a higher-ranking bureaucrat. The composer lets loose his mature early style in the score: At times the music is dark and contemplative but most often it presents shimmering surface of manic, controlled chaos, full of high contrasts, dischords, and instrumental effects (trombone glissandi and pirouetting flexatone lines abound). An interlude for percussion instruments alone, though its avant-gardeness was already being lapped by more extreme developments in 20th century music, still puts out a raw and driving energy that Shostakovich rarely achieved, or tried to achieve, again. Shostakovich also flexes his stylistic versatility. As in his other major early works, humorous and grotesque fragments of dances or marches pop out of the score for a few bars and, just as quickly, are kneaded back into the orchestra. The Nose also features longer-form exercises in style, in the wordless, perfectly churchy choral music for the scene in the Kazan Cathedral, and in the love song for balalaika and voice sung by Kovalyov's servant. Temperamentally, Shostakovich is an excellent match for Gogol, and the music very aptly builds on the author's coyly subversive attitude and on his satirical eye. The opening of scene 5, which musically enacts Gogol's description of "the 'B-r-rh!' with his lips which [Kovalyev] always did when he had been asleep", provides a perfectly ridiculous introduction to the protagonist. And at the very end, when Kovalyov's nose has been restored, Shostakovich's lightly joshing music conveys both the protagonist's genuine relief and his smug self-satisfaction.

The only large misstep in the opera comes at the beginning of Act III, in which Shostakovich et. al. flesh out the scene of the nose's capture as he attempts to flee St. Petersburg in a stage coach. At least some of the material comes from elsewhere in Gogol's writings but, as a couple of vignettes are presented while the police lie in wait for the nose, the opera seems to be treading water. More problematically, there's a darkness here that doesn't appear elsewhere in the opera, particularly related to the policemen, who sing a discontented song (in the Met's production they posture mutinously towards their commanding officer) and later harass a woman selling bagels. The tone of these episodes -- not to mention the overloaded depiction of bad-acting by the Czarist police, which concurs with the party line while it nods towards the USSR's own thugs -- appears almost verbatim in Shostakovich's next opera, Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk, and it works like gangbusters in that work, which has a much stronger current of hostility and sexual violence. Here, though, it adds a sour note, and forms the only deviation from the lighter tone of the Gogol story.

All roles seemed universally well sung to me. Shostakovich doesn't provide many opportunities for vocal pyrotechnics but Paulo Szot (as Kovalyov) and Andrei Popov (as the police inspector) stood out in conveying the unselfconscious buffoonery of their characters. The orchestra, directed by Valery Gergiev, sounded energetic and precise throughout, spot-on technically and stylistically.

The Met production by William Kentridge builds on the score's Soviet-modernist, let's-put-on-a-show-until-they-make-us-take-it-off sense of anarchy. The nose is most often represented onstage by a person wearing a large, paper-wrapped nose suit, which sets a vaudevillian tone. Animated sequences are projected onto the set, sometimes forming grotesque little ballets between scenes and sometimes integrating with the action onstage; the English translation/reduction of the dialog, rather than being presented as supertitles, is beamed onto the stage. It all constitutes a postmodern multimedia extravaganza, yet one that looks back to early Soviet Russia's spirit of artistic experimentation in its brash angles and energy, a la mode but retro too. The animations have none of the erasures that I associate most strongly with Kentridge's style; they feature moving collages of shapes, words, and cut-out images, recalling the visual styles of Eastern European cartoons (inevitably, I think of this as the Worker and Parasite aesthetic; stupid Simpsons, broke my imagination) and, aptly, Terry Gilliam's animated Monty Python sequences. Archival film is interpolated too, often with cartoon noses pasted over the human faces. Footage of the young Shostakovich at a piano appears prominently in a gleefully meta sequence just before the nose's absence is discovered: As the percussion interlude thunders away, the composer hammers at the keyboard, the high end of which is projected on top of the sleeping Kovalyov, who thrashes about as though having Kafka-esque, pre-metamorphosis nightmares, like a puppet on the musical string of the composer-puppeteer.

The apparently inevitable Stalin reference -- the nose, in a cartoon late in the game, sketches a quick, graffito-like portrait -- adds little but doesn't detract much either. The problem with using Stalinism as a thematic crutch in productions of Shostakovich operas (predominantly the far more popular Lady MacBeth) is a subject for some other time, but the main issue is that it strips the conflict down into a one-dimensional contest between Stalin on one side and Shostakovich / Society / Art on the other. (And, of course, since you're watching an opera instead of a May Day Parade, you already know who won.) The Met's Nose production does much better elsewhere at playing in a darkly humorous way with the general ideas of impostorship and thwarted claims to power: In an animated interlude, the nose, riding a decrepit horse, tries to balance itself on a statue's pedestal; in another, a silhouetted figure tries to march with a large banner into a stiff headwind, the flag disintegrating overhead as he is continually blown backwards.

The production suffers from some practical flaws, at least from the upper reaches of the family circle seating. The texts projected onto the stage (most often onto the thin edge of a raised platform) were hard to make out to the point of illegibility, especially when lights were shining on the same areas. More critically, some key self-referential commentary on the end of the story (added in from Gogol's narration in a nice touch) is projected onto the top of the backdrop, where the top of the set blocks it from sight for us peasants in the nosebleed seats. Also, in the Kazan Cathedral scene, the solo vocal lines -- already at a disadvantage against the powerful orchestral forces -- are balanced too softly against the choral and instrumental parts; the scene intends to represent a hard-to-hear conversation within a crowded and noisy space but the effect is mere inaudibility. These are just rough edges, though, on a pleasurable overall experience.

Part of seeing this work performed is to lament, not for the first or last time, that Shostakovich's operatic career ended so prematurely -- His masterful Lady MacBeth was famously suppressed by official pressure and the political culture made it impossible for him to write non-propagandistic vocal music until later in life, when he mostly stuck to song cycles. I agree with the view that he directed his narrative impulse into his symphonic output, which starting with the fifth symphony have more Romantic, more plainly expressive trajectories than his earlier works -- in which view there's no net loss. Still, as a creator of operas he could have been another Janacek, maybe another Britten.

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Afterwards, Jack snapped a picture of me outside the theater, standing in the rain beneath the poster advertising the show: It may or may not have turned out clear enough even for Internet display, given the rain, but it would show me weathering the elements Pacific Northwest-style, with hooded waterproof coat and rainpants. It was coming down as hard as it did all weekend, then, or maybe it seemed that way with the rain pelting the hard surface of the still very inorganic Lincoln Center plaza.

The subway station had an atmosphere all its own: It was wet and cold, mostly, from the water and (I think) from a collective understanding of everybody else's wetness and coldness. A busker with a tenor sax was playing odd, disjointed musical phrases -- very Shostakovich-like, and for a couple of minutes I thought, "Huh. My brain is really trying to fit whatever he's playing into the mold of the opera I've been listening to a couple of hours." I mentioned it to Jack and he suggested that maybe it actually is... At one of the many breaks in the music I asked the saxophonist what he was playing. "It's from The Nose, by Shostakovich. Did you just come from there?" Yes. "It's pretty hardcore." He asked whether we thought the opera had a cloaked message about the Soviet autocracy so we chatted about that for a minute (short answer: yes). He returned to playing; from over his shoulder he seemed to be playing disembodied excerpts from the piano line in a vocal score. At the end of a page he'd trail off, turn the page, start playing again. A train galloped past on the express track; the ceiling above it, right before or right after the subway passed, dropped about a bathtub's worth of rainwater onto the track with a prolonged and sloppy splat. Only in New York, with Shostakovich, and with rain.


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