Time for the 2nd mash-up this opera season between SNLC and the occasional opera series, begun by Demi Moaned and continued by self, following the HD-casts to movie theaters of Metropolitan Opera productions.  With that, here's with today's variation on the standard start-up question:

Anyone see the Metropolitan Opera HD-cast of The Nose today?

If you did see it, lucky you, as the opera is not often staged.  Dmitri Shostakovich completed the opera in 1928, after the short story by Nikolai Gogol, with himself, Yevgeny Zamyatin (yes, the author of We), Georgy Ionin, and Alexander Preis as co-librettists.  The first Met production wasn't until March 2010, but it was quite the event, as it was the Met directorial debut of the South African artist William Kentridge.  It became a hot ticket then, with the entire run pretty much sold out, or close to it.  It also coincided with a major exhibit of Kentridge at the Museum of Modern Art in Q1 2010.  

First, as usual, to get most readers on the same page, the synopsis of the plot is here.  But in brief, the plot centers around Collegiate Assessor Platon Kuzmich Kovalyov, who wakes up one morning, after going to the barber the previous day, to find that his nose is missing from his face, but with no sign of bloodshed or injury on his face at all, just sheer flatness where his nose used to be.  Not quite as visually obvious as waking up and being transformed into a giant insect, but traumatic in its own way.  More below the flip.....

Reviews of the production from the NYT and the FT have links as follows:

(a) 2010 (original run), Anthony Tommasini, NYT
(b) 2010 (original run), Martin Bernheimer, FT
(c) 2013 (revival), James R. Oestreich, NYT

By luck, a translation of Gogol's story is in my college short story anthology, but I'd never read it until recently, with the opera on the horizon.  I'll admit that I wasn't sure what to make of what "The Nose" is "about", beyond the superficial absurdist story, but Oestreich has as good a thesis as any:

"Gogol's tale, from 1836, is a sendup of self-important petty bureaucrats."
It turns out that the opera follows the Gogol plot very faithfully, and captures all the plot details very well, even down to the dialogue.  In fact, given the brevity of the story, Shostakovich and his libretto collaborators actually expanded on the original, with extended scenes in the opera that are pretty much summed up in a line or two in the short story.  For example, in the opera, you get a solo soprano (Ying Fang) in the Kazansky Cathedral scene, where Kovalyov (baritone Paulo Szot) finds the nose (tenor Alexander Lewis), grown to full human size, in the uniform of a bureaucrat - of superior rank to Kovalyov, naturally, which the nose doesn't hesitate to tell Kovalyov.  Some noses just don't know their place, it seems.  

From 2010, Tommasini has this comment about Shostakovich's expansions of the plot:

"In many great operas composers have had to whittle down an epic literary work into a suitable libretto. In The Nose Shostakovich, who fashioned the libretto with three other writers, does the opposite. Gogol tells this baffling tale with disarming simplicity. When a police inspector presents Kovalyov with his missing nose, for example, the inspector explains in just a couple of sentences that he nabbed the culprit as it was trying to board a train out of the city.

To Shostakovich this brief exchange screamed out for operatic dramatization. Here it becomes an extended, hyperpaced choral ensemble with milling crowds, vendors, policemen and the fleeing nose. Shostakovich’s tendency toward long-windedness is already evident, even though the opera lasts just 1 hour 45 minutes, and the Met, rightly, performs it without intermission."

Tommasini (as well as Bernheimer) clearly resisted the temptation to use the phrase "running nose" in his review, even though in the course of the plot, on stage, running is exactly what the nose does at times.  For once, if the pun had been used, it would have been warranted.

I'll admit that I noted some scenes that felt padded, and too long for their own good.  Still, it's worth remembering that Shostakovich completed this opera when he was a very young man, barely in his 20's.  He did go kind of crazy when composing the work, as there are actually 74 to 78 (depending on how and where you count) separate singing roles, some of them very short indeed (i.e. one singer can sing several of the short roles in different scenes).  Any of us should be so talented as to create an achievement like this in one's 20's.  Plus, at that time in the USSR, there was actually a thriving arts scene, with quite a bit of room for experimentation and creativity.  Of course, not long after, Stalin pretty much shut that down.

One can argue that the zaniness, exuberance, and off and on OTT-ness of Shostakovich's score finds a nice parallel in Kentridge's production.  The projections on the stage scrim approach sensory overload more than once, including blow-ups of newspaper clippings, odd English (!) phrases (e.g. "HIS MAJESTY, COMRADE NOSE" or "ANOTHER KHEPPI ENDING" - try saying the latter out loud and you'll get the linguistic joke).  Kentridge was 54 at the time of the 2010 Met premiere, with quite a pedigree, as this separate NYT article notes:

"Mr. Kentridge’s work bears the stamp of many interests. He holds degrees in politics and African studies as well as fine arts, and trained in Paris with the renowned mime Jacques Lecoq. His theatrical credits include two well-traveled opera productions: Monteverdi’s Ritorno di Ulisse in Patria and Mozart’s Zauberflöte. Drawing, though, remains his most natural form of artistic expression. To watch him draw is to see him think, and his work in other mediums is an extension of drawing by other means."
One other passage, ironic in advance of the Met HD-cast, from the article is this:
'The exceptional height of the Met stage has prompted Mr. Kentridge to think in terms of the screen of an old-time movie palace. “We’re constantly zooming in and out, which is kind of what Gogol does,” he said. “Zoom in on a woman you’ve never seen before. ‘I’m going to die,’ she says. ‘Bury me in my purple dress.’ And that’s the last you hear of her. You see very specific characters for a very short time and the giant social world teeming around them.'
In fact, in a pre-recorded chat between Kentridge and Met general director Peter Gelb at the start of the HD-cast, the choice of The Nose for an opera was apparently Kentridge's, not Gelb's or any of the Met staff, after Gelb had signed up Kentridge to direct a new opera back in 2006.  Kentridge also admitted that he used his own nose as the template for the on-stage papier-mache (or whatever the material is) nose.  Just for the record, in the cathedral scene where Lewis has his big chance to sing as the nose, he is not the person in the nose get-up, but stands dressed in "mirror-image" to Kovalyov, with Kentridge's nose sketched projected on stage over Lewis.

One official Met-sanctioned video that features Kentridge talking about his production, from the time of the original 2010 run, is here:

You can watch other video excerpts related to the Met production at this link.  You'll notice that on Paulo Szot's face, as Kovalyov, he obviously still has his nose fully attached, for obvious practical reasons.  In the theater, of course, you're too far away to notice such details, and you accept the suspension of disbelief, more or less.  On a big movie screen, though, with plenty of opportunities for close-ups, you notice that Szot still has his schnozz visually intact, with nothing to indicate said loss, even symbolically.  

Of course, one issue with the Met HD-casts is that very fact that the camera often focuses on one part of the stage at a time, or one character, or a few characters.  Granted, if you're watching a show, whether it's an opera, a play or a musical, you do the same thing, just on your own, rather than through the video director's choice of shot.  You "make your own movie" as an audience member at a live performance, in terms of what detail or aspect of the stage action that you choose to focus on, whether consciously or unconsciously.  But at the Met HD-casts, the video director has made that choice for you to a pretty fair degree.  Granted, if it's a long shot rather than a close-up, you still have room to focus on one particular portion of the long shot.

I did have the mild worry about how much visual information would be lost, from Kentridge's projections, on the movie screen.  However, to give the HD-director, Gary Halvorsen, credit, he did allow the camera to focus on the full stage fairly often, to allow you to get a good sense of Kentridge's visual imagination run riot.  In addition to Kentridge's trademark drawings, he also has worked in archival footage of the early USSR, Shostakovich playing the piano, and Anna Pavlova dancing, the last two sometimes with the nose image superimposed on DS and AP.  It'd be interesting to know if Kentridge had any input in the choice of camera shots, as there was no indication one way or the other.

Kentridge's visual toy shop does approach sensory overload more than once, in terms of the collage of items with which he populates the stage.  Bernheimer noted as much in his review, but then added an appreciative coda:

"There may be too much of a brilliant thing here. Still, that’s better than too little. Call it opera of the absurd."
Given that The Nose isn't your standard "conventional" opera, in that there aren't any big show-off arias and such (although Kovalyov and the nose each get one relatively extended chance to sing), the cast does pretty well overall.  Szot is on stage for most of the opera and obviously has the most to sing, with perhaps Andrey Popov as the Police Inspector running him for second in terms of stage time and stuff to sing.  Both did well, even if neither part necessarily calls for standard "beautiful voice" output.  In that sense, the one singer who got the warmest applause among the "supporting players" was Ying Fang, who sang not only the female solo in the cathedral scene, but also the daughter of Madame Podtochina.   (By way of the plot, Madame Podtochina wants Kovalyov to marry her daughter, but he's not quite ready to settle down just yet, it seems.)

The conductor for the HD-cast was not Valery Gergiev (he of the not-denouncing Putin the homophobe camp), who conducted the first performances in this revival run, but rather another fellow, Pavel Smelkov, who was also the second conductor in the initial 2010 run, finishing out the run in each set of performances.  According to a mini-bio of Smelkov, he's served as "artistic director and conductor of the Baltika Youth Chamber Orchestra since 1999", and has been on the conducting roster of the Mariinsky Theatre, Gergiev's artistic fiefdom, since 2000.  Not hard to imagine how he got the Met gig then.  However, in the case of an opera like The Nose, given its relatively unfamiliarity and its trickiness, the main job of the conductor is to ensure that the orchestra starts together, stays together, and finishes together, especially with this opera, where arguably you need a Russian conductor above all.  On those counts, Smelkov did just fine.

If you want one more chance to see the HD-cast, it's pretty soon, as the encore HD-cast in the USA is next Wednesday, 10/30/13.  Canadians get to see the HD-cast one month later, Saturday 11/30/13.  An edited version of this HD-cast will eventually make its way to PBS broadcast and to DVD, following suitable touching up.  This is far from the most populist choice for a Met HD-cast, so the Met deserves praise for picking an out-of-the-way choice for this series.  

Speakig of Shostakovich, the Met has staged Shostakovich's other opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, in the past.  Needless to say, it would be cool if they were to stage it again (i.e. so that nerds like me can go see it).  But I have no idea if that's in the cards.  What apparently is in the cards is that Kentridge is slated to direct a new production of Alban Berg's Lulu for the Met down the line.  That will actually be something to look out for.  There's also the James Levine factor, if he remains in condition by then, i.e. in at least 2 years or so, to conduct it (but that's another story).

By way of a bonus, for anyone who's bothered to read this or, having stopped by, made it this far, you get this bonus YT video of the man himself, in 1975 (the year he died), at rehearsals for a production of The Nose:

So after a blast by proxy of Russian absurdism by way of South Africa and NYC, you can now either:

(a) Discuss the HD-cast, or the Gogol story (or both), or:
(b) Observe the usual SNLC protocol.

Or you can do both.  Nothing wrong with that ;) .  


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