Yesterday morning I attended the Met’s ‘Live in HD’ simulcast of The Nose. It was fascinating.
The plot, based on a short story by Nikolai Gogol, is absurd in every meaning for that term. Kovalev, a minor bureaucrat awakens one morning to find that his nose is missing. It has left his face. There is no evidence of wound or physical trauma; just a smooth flat space where his nose had been the night before. He is devastated by his disfigurement and the effect he fears it will have on his life. For it’s part, the nose starts its independent life by being baked into a loaf of bread and served to the barber who may or may not have accidentally removed it while giving Kovalev a shave. The barber attempts to throw the wayward nose into the river but he fails and the nose goes off to explore the world on it’s own, at one point pretending to be a government official. Soon, the nose has become more successful in society than its former owner and has no interest in returning to its life on Kovalev’s face. Hijinks ensue. The castration symbolism is pretty heavy handed but, more interestingly, the story is blatantly critical of social authority.
The history of The Nose is almost as interesting as the work itself. Gogol’s short story of the same name was written about 1835 during the reign of Tsar Nicholas I. Nicholas I was a hardline reactionary and one of the most oppressive the Romanov rulers. Social critique was not in style and the story was controversial.
Almost a century later, at age 22, Dimitri Shostakovich creates his first opera based on Gogol’s short story. It is now 1928. The Romanov’s were ousted a decade earlier. Lenin had died in 1924 and Stalin was consolidating power and creating a regime that would become more oppressive than Nicholas I would have imagined possible. Shostakovich creates an opera that is also critical of the social system. Throughout his lifetime Shostakovich would fall in and out of favor with the Stalin-era Soviet power structure.
It is hard to identify what influences had the greatest impact on the 1928 opera’s style. The music is modern and atonal. Long passages are percussion only. While Gogol’s story predated the Absurdist movement in theater and fiction, Shostakovich would have had the opportunity to know of it by the time he created the opera. Jarry’s Ubu plays had been written a quarter century earlier. Kafka’s The Metamorphosis was published in 1915 and Pirandello’s Six Characters In Search of an Author premiered in 1921.
The Met’s new production is created by South African artist William Kentridge. It is visually stunning as the action moves back and forth seamlessly from live action to abstract animation. Many of the design elements were taken from newspapers and publications the artist located in Russia and has described as including “Stalinist kitsch”. I think the design is a perfect match to the music and libretto. I also think it is well suited to the Live in HD simulcast format. Much of the action on stage exists in two dimensions and so is ideally suited to the movie screen. The opera is structured in three acts but, with a running time of less than two hours, is intended to be performed without intermission.
It is short by opera standards but still tests the audience’s focus. There are few ‘numbers’ that invite the audience to stop the action with applause. Shostakovich was reported to be irate that an earlier performance was done in a concert setting feeling the material could not be appreciated without action.
The Nose is not for everyone. About 10% of the audience in the movie theater left by the middle of Act III. I am curious to know how it will be received by Lincoln Center audiences. One the one hand, Mr. Kentridge’s work is popular in New York museum circles. At the same time, the Met’s subscribers are well known to express their displeasure with anything that falls outside their expectations for the way things have been done in the past. We’ll see. I admit I am not anxious to see The Nose again soon. But I am very glad I saw this production of it.