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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Opera Review: It's Off...and Running

The Metropolitan Opera re-tweaks The Nose.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The Doctor (Gennady Bezzubenkov) administers to the nose-less Kovalyov in a scene from The Nose.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2013 The Metropolitan Opera.
This year's Metropolitan Opera season is full of unlikely gems, revivals of opera productions that combine the best aspects of the unique and unexpected. One of those is the current revival of The Nose, the first opera from the pen of Dmitri Shostakovich. This revival marked the return of the innovative, kinetic staging by William Kentridge, whose imaginative use of multi-media and the Met's enormous stage allowed this thoroughly Russian farce to play out with the force of a titanic sneeze.

Shostakovich had already made his reputation as a brash young Soviet composer when he wrote The Nose in 1929. The opera is a sparkling, energetic realization of the Gogol short story chronicling the woes of a minor Russian bureaucrat who wakes up one morning having suffered a mysterious episode of rhinoplasty. (In fact, his nose has detached itself and run rampant on the streets of Moscow.) The story offered the young composer opportunity for vicious, slashing social satire of the bumbling police and bureaucracy. The Nose was wiped from the stage after only 16 performances. It was not seen again in the Soviet Union until 1974.

Swelling itself to human size, the runaway Nose dresses up as a state councillor and is finally captured at the railway station after it attempts to board an outbound carriage. This sequence is a marvel of comic invention, as a huge cross-section of Russian society comes together to beat the offending proboscis into submission. Mr. Kentridge's an inventive approach to these strange events plausout the comedy in a whirl of newsprint, animated films and (for the title character) a costume made from papier-mâché. 

In the pit was Valery Gergiev whose considerable skills with Russian music make him a welcome and returned presence to the Metropolitan Opera this year. Mr. Gergiev is often variable as a conductor, but this performance was brisk and energetic. The complex structures and musical in-jokes in the score were played with energy and rough good humor, with the complex percussion parts bursting out of the pit to accompany the antic chase onstage.

Also welcome: the return of Broadway baritone Paulo Szot as the aggrieved Kovalyov, owner of the Nose. Mr. Szot's clowning and comic timing draws the viewer inside his postage-stamp sized Moscow apartment and his character's  vain, miserable existence. He gets laughs by playing the part relatively straight especially in the third act as the character struggles to reattach the Nose to his face.

Mr. Szot was surrounded by a fine cadre of singers in key supporting roles. These are led by Russian stage veteran Vladimir Ognovenko, as Yakovlevich, a drunken barber who may have been the means of the Nose’s removal. Tenor Andrey Popov drew laughs as the Police Inspector, a figure reminiscent of the Captain in Berg’s Wozzeck. Theodora Hanslowe shine as the Matron, an aristocratic figure beset with one of Mr. Kentridge's more inventive masks.

The ensemble featured a number of artists familiar from appearances at the recently deceased New York City Opera. These included baritone Kevin Burdette and bass Kevin Glavin, two fine artists whose excellent comic instincts shone in the large ensembles. Also worth mentioning: soprano Ying Fang as Kovalyov’s confused love interest and Gennady Bezzubenkov as the madcap Doctor (another Wozzeck figure) who may do more harm than good in his efforts to reattach the Nose. Like most of the figures in this show, the Doctor is a fool. However, when he asks the aggrieved Kovalyov if he is missing any other body parts, he hits this opera's psychological subtext on the...nose.

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