Sunday, October 27, 2013

Douglas Messerli | "Shrill Charm" (on Dmitri Shostakovich's The Nose)


shrill charm
by Douglas Messerli
 
Dmitri Shostakovich (libretto, based on a story by Gogol, and music) Nos (The Nose) / 1929, the production I saw was the Live HD transmission from The Metropolitan Opera, New York, on October 26, 2013

Yesterday Howard and I saw, for the first time, the rather raucous, even, at times, rackety opera by Dmitri Shostakovich composed in the last wave of Soviet Futurist experimentalism in 1927-28, and premiering in Leningrad a year later.

      I cannot imagine a more innovative and stunningly visual version of this short opera than William Kentridge and Luc De Wit’s dynamic production which combines small, beautifully lit (by Urs Sch√∂nebaum) “realist” sets upon and behind which is projected a stunning collage-film of Russian visuals and English-language and Russian-language words that creates the entire world of Leningrad whirling out of control around the fairly simple story of a lower bureaucrat, Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov (wonderfully played by Paulo Szot), who one morning wakes up without his nose.

     The nose has been found in a piece of bread baked by the wife of the local barber, who the day before has attempted, unsuccessfully, to shave Kovalyov. The barber, Ivan Yakovlevich, immediately attempts to get rid of the discovered nose, but has a great deal of difficulty as he is met throughout the streets by friends and enemies alike, establishing the almost always mix of wildly exuberant and severely controlled world of Gogol’s story. Finally, attempting to throw the nose into the Neva river, Ivan is spotted by a police officer who immediately arrests him.

     As Kovalyov wakes up to bemoan the missing appendage, the utterly absurd story begins it dramatic arch as the nose, suddenly now as large as a person (played in this production by Alexander Lewis), is seen running through the streets, and soon after is encountered by Kovalyov in the Cathedral—now dressed in the uniform of a State Councilor, who, compared with the Collegiate Assessor, is of so high a rank that Kovalyov dare not even address him. When he does demand that the nose come back to him, the appendage declares to have nothing to do with him and, in the crowded service, again escapes.

      Outraged, Kovalyov visits the chief of police, only to be told, as in so many tales of the slipperiness of those in power, that the chief has just left his office. A too-long encounter with journalists at the local newspaper follows, wherein they refuse to post Kovalyov’s notice of his lost nose for fear of discrediting the newspaper; who would believe in the loss of a nose: When Kovalyov finally reveals his face, however, they are convinced, but still refuse to post the advertisement, ironically offering him some snuff in recompense. In anger and self-pity the bureaucrat leaves them to return to his room in despair.

      The real pleasure of Kentridge’s sets and film reveal the nose in various “adventures,” linking itself, at one moment, to an equestrian statue, at another dancing upon head of Anna Pavlova. Mostly, the poor nose roams the city, attempting, like the murderer in Fritz Lang’s M, simply to not be noticed and trapped. As the artist-director described his interpretation of Gogol’s story in an engaging conversation with Met manager Peter Gelb before the opera, he sees the nose as something like a writer reading his failed words in despair, the words unable to match what in his head. The nose, a bit like one’s words, simply desires a life of its own, a life apart from its humdrum pimpled existence upon the face of the failed human being, we gradually discover, who Kovalyov is. Adding another layer of irony to the story, Kentridge modeled the opera’s nose upon his own quite sizable proboscis.

      Throughout the opera, indeed, much is ironic and everything is almost always satiric, without being truly funny (despite the constant chortles that issued from the elderly woman sitting next to me who obviously confused attention to the opera with the need to issue vocal clues to her appreciation). Indeed Shostakovich’s piece, one might argue, presents itself as a kind of one-liner. Without character development in the narrative, and basically shrill in its scherzo ostinato and high tenor and baritone squeaks, the work, despite its often exciting score, generally overwhelms its subject matter, particularly in the crowd scenes, both in the train station and on the streets as the large wonderfully-costumed cast run about in chase of the nose and scream out their fears for the dangers the escaped nose represents. At times, one sought just a few moments of tonal relief, but when those moments arrived, as in the comic balalaika song sung by Kovalyov’s servant or the somewhat quieter moment when, after everyone has rushed to a park to see the nose, one viewer summarizes the “nothing” he has seen, the momentarily quietude was quickly swept up again in the frantic action and sounds of Shostakovich’s busy city life.

      There is ultimately a kind of sadness to this satiric work, as when, even when Kovalyov’s nose is returned, it still is determined not stay upon his face. The Collegiate Assessor even fantasizes, briefly, an evil spell cast upon him by Madame Podtochina, whose daughter he has refused to marry, and continues refuse even after the fracas has died down.

     In the end it appears that the nose has just been worn by all the hubbub of the citizenry and police stalking the Nevsky Prospekt and other parts of the Russian city. It is only then, when Kovalyov discovers upon awakening the next day, that his nose has returned of its own will, that Shostakovitch’s opera quiets down into a fetching polka, as the gossipy city-dwellers—similar to the officials proclaiming the Stalinist-imposed restrictions—chastise the writer for even thinking of such a silly and unbelievable story—although admitting, in true Eastern European manner, that, of course, such things can happen. That even the unbelievable can sometimes occur.

     If Shostakovich’s first foray into theater and opera is not a great work, it is, nonetheless, a kind of hidden treasure, despite its often strident narrative and sounds. And William Kentridge has transformed this work into a true visual pleasure which I will not soon forget.    

Los Angeles, October 27, 2013

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