Shostakovich’s The Nose, directed by the currently ‘hot’ artist William Kentridge, has been playing at the Met to sold-out houses for the past three weeks. Standing room has sold out shortly after 10am. Both times I saw it I barely got tickets, which is rare given that prior to this I have never had problems purchasing tickets at 2 in the afternoon. If there is proof towards the longevity of opera as an art form, this is it. For once the sold-out production is not a Verdi or Puccini opera, but an absurd atonal one.
There is much about the music of The Nose that can still be called avant-garde today. Its montage construction, largely atonal fragments, an absurd eight-voiced canon, the bold experiments of a 10 person percussion section, and its satirical and paradoxical references to Russian ‘greats’ such as Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov, are enough reasons to turn the head of any regular opera lover. But as Alex Ross points out, these stock devices of the Western avant-garde would probably not have stood out had the composer lived in Berlin in the 1920s, among the “general throng of spiky young composers.” According to the Shostakovich biographer Solomon Volkov, what makes this opera dramatically pleasing is that the central character elicits our compassion. Kovalyov’s emotionally charged music about missing and searching for his nose is enough to affect audiences. In this production it is the absurd plot that has been highlighted.
Through projections and artificial visual interplay with live characters, Mr. Kentridge has made the production as wonderful as the music. His work in this opera does not make literal sense- he is not visually representing what is going on in the plot. After all, there is no need to spoon-feed an audience. It is purity in art that he says is dangerous and leads to misunderstanding. Instead, his work focuses on ambiguity, unclearness, and surprising contradictions that keep life unpredictable and interesting. He calls it “productive misunderstanding.” Knowledge comes from people’s surroundings, from their own personal experiences. No one really knows what is at the center of truth.
It is the beauty of imagination that forms the basis of this production. During a scene in the opera when Kovalyov is helplessly trying to reattach his nose, a tragic bassoon melody is accompanied by archival footage of the ballerina Anna Pavlova, with a nose as her head. It does not literally make sense, but it moves the audience nonetheless. The first quirky instrumental interlude in the opera is accompanied by projected figures made out of inanimate objects like scissors and flags, marching across stage. During one attempt by Kovalyov to re-attach his nose, a silhouette projection shows a nose attempting to climb a ladder, repeatedly and helplessly falling down. It is both funny and absurd in combination with the satirical music.
Fresh from his Tony Award winning run next door in South Pacific, the baritone Paulo Szot sang passionately and acted with immense drama and humor, when needed. The rest of the approximately fifty-member cast delivered their solos with conviction. Standing out were the sopranos Claudia Waite and Erin Morley. The former has a huge Wagnerian voice that she employed comically as the barber’s wife during Act 1. During the Cathedral scene at the end of Act 1, Ms. Morley sang beautifully and floated her melodic line above the orchestra accompaniment.
Producing The Nose was evidently the idea of Mr. Kentridge, who was originally approached back in 2005 by the newly appointed Met general manager, Peter Gelb, about directing a production of Attila. Mr. Gelb subsequently got Valery Gergiev, the leading Shostakovich conductor, to take it on. During both performances I saw, Mr. Gergiev was a solid rock and seemed to have worked seamlessly to allow Mr. Kentridge his artistic freedom. I’m sure I’m not the only one who is glad that Mr. Gelb agreed to The Nose. Shotakovich’s beautiful yet largely unknown opera is a perfect match to the work aesthetics of Mr. Kentridge. Bravo.
Check out the interview with William Kentridge at the New York City Public Library...