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21 March, 2010

Shostakovich and "The Nose" at the Met.

The Nose by Shostakovich. Metropolitan Opera. Thurs March 11 2010 8pm.

I knew that this opera would be a challenge for me but I went along with a positive attitude despite some trepidation. Clearly for people who like that sort of thing, this is the sort of thing they would like!

For me, even reading Gogol’s short story on which the opera is based did not help. I found the opera to be a meaningless cacophony with ugly vocal excesses albeit in a brilliant and original visual production by a William Kentridge. There was no intermission and the piece went for about 95 minutes. Yet the crowds seemed delighted with the bizarre occurrences on stage and in the pit. The season of 6 performances is a sell-out and reviews are positive so I am clearly in the minority. I heard complaints that there is no HD video broadcast planned this season - perhaps later.

Valery Gergiev conducted Paolo Szot (baritone) as Kovalyov, Gordon Gietz (tenor) as The Nose and Andrei Popov (tenor) as the police inspector. I waited in vain to hear the words ‘nostrils’ or ‘flared’. ‘Sniff’ was used in relation to a joke about haemorrhoids and snuff.

The story is theatre of the absurd. That should be no stranger to the opera house where bizarre and unbelievable stories are common in successful operas (I just saw a DVD of La Sonnambula which is also crazy). Yet for me this opera was a failure since it lacked the two essential ingredients of visual and vocal beauty. We don’t need much, but some contrasts between the desirable and the unpleasant are necessary to my mind. This opera seemed to have no defined vocal arias nor melodic orchestration which complimented dramatic situations in the libretto. Some stressed lines of singing were written too high for the tenor to sing, creating a strained, ugly and uncomfortable noise from someone trained to do the opposite.

Nevertheless, one’s interest was certainly kept engaged with the various scenes complimented by brilliant B&W projections of shadow wire figures. These started as a central curtain projection of a slowly rotating silhouette of what looked like a complex mobile mechanism which finally coalesced in an instant to a static human face, possibly Stalin. The brilliant effect caused applause, yet the device did not seem related to the story in any particular way from my vantage point. It also interrupted what passed for an overture. Other images were horses galloping (on one occasion a limping horse with three legs) and these were sometimes used to give the appearance of dragging large pieces of the set around the stage.

There were scenes in a barber’s shop (strangely set with the residence below); bedroom; village square; bridge; newspaper offices, etc. The (absurd) drama unfolded, essentially of a man who wakes up to find his nose is gone and his face flat while another man in the town finds a nose in his breakfast and tries to dispose of it without being detected. The rest just eluded me.

As well as the normal sub-titles we were presented with frequent convenient stage projections of words, sometimes identical to our libretto titles (English and German choices this time). At times however, there were random and provocative words projected in various languages and fonts and colours, even sideways and upside down. The text disambiguation seemed to be an attempt by the production team to compliment and already confusing story.

The orchestration appeared to be constantly aiming for what one could not expect or predict. The usual orchestral instruments were complimented by a piano I believe with other keyboards and additional percussion instruments. One bracket consisted of a five minute loud drum solo. While this arguably had something to do with the libretto, it became boring and repetitive after the first minute or so of drums and cymbals.

If an honours undergraduate drama student had been asked to do the most outrageous and bizarre theatrical things on a large budget this would have gained top marks. Yet it was all completely meaningless for me … as well as another regular opera subscriber who was sitting beside me. Yet for another person in our row, this was her third performance and she was convinced that it should be a life-changing experience for all participants. So each to their own! I just missed the magic which others described. Shostakovich is a special taste and think I just missed out on the essential chromosome to appreciate such Russian cultural material.

Web site for the short story by Gogol found on Google!

An insightful review found on an internet search:,0,5768315.column

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..