an opera by Dmitri Shostakovich based on a story by Nikolai Gogol,
directed by William Kentridge,
Metropolitan Opera House, New York, Spring 2010.
by Wendy Lesser
The whole project started with Gogol, out of whose overcoat, according to Dostoyevsky, all other modern Russian literature emerged. He wrote his story “The Nose “ in the mid-1830s, a period when Russia was firmly under Tsarist rule, when wealthy and even moderately comfortable people owned serfs, and when finely drawn class distinctions between the various levels of the civil service and the army dominated metropolitan life. In his Kafkaesque tale, a “Collegiate Assessor of the eighth rank” named Kovalyov, who pretentiously calls himself a Major, wakes up one morning to discover that he is missing his nose. He is distressed, of course, but mainly because of the effect this marked irregularity will have on his social ascent, so he desperately seeks to get his nose back by trying to place an ad for it in the newspapers, complaining heatedly to the police, and engaging in other useless activities.
Meanwhile, the local barber has found Kovalyov’s nose in a loaf of bread baked by his wife; he hastily gets rid of it by throwing it in the Neva. Soon after, the nose is seen parading around town “in the guise of a State Councillor”—a higher rank than Kovalyov’s, which enables it, or him (the two pronouns are the same in Russian) to cut Kovalyov contemptuously when they meet in a cathedral. Eventually the nose is captured attempting to leave town on someone else’s passport, and is returned by the police to its rightful owner, but even a doctor cannot help Kovalyov stick in back on. Finally, however, it reappears on his face all by itself, and everything is as it was before.
One can see why the young Shostakovich (he was only twenty-two when he finished writing this opera in 1928) would have been attracted to this tale of absurdity and bad behavior. Nonsensical as it is, it is also extremely pointed, and the social pretensions and fears it mocked in 1836 would ony have come to seem more pertinent by the late 1920s, when the brave new experiment of socialist revolution was starting to harden into the overwhelming stratifications of the Communist state. The libretto, which Shostakovich wrote himself—apparently with the assistance of a few co-writers—consists largely of dialogue lifted directly from the story. One misses the voice of the quietly confidential Gogolian narrator, but that is partly made up for by the searing intensity of the music, which changes from satiric to tender so rapidly that it sometimes seem to combine both moods at once.
Shostakovich’s score occupies and exploits the strange borderline on which he found himself located in the Russia of 1928: between the wildly experimental and the frighteningly trapped, between chaos and rigidity, between a popular stage on which anything could be presented and one on which censorship kept a firm and troubling hand. The score for The Nose is still, over eighty years later, somewhat shocking in its disregard for normal operatic conventions: the main character, for example, first appears onstage emitting vulgar grunts and groans rather than a fetching aria; the cathedral music is a strange, wordless mimicry (some might say a mockery) of religious singing; and the overall texture is so jazzy that there is barely a scene that doesn’t rely heavily on percussion. Shostakovich must have been well aware of the potential for offending more staid sensibilities, for he didn’t want to risk a concert performance of the work, which he thought would only provoke bewilderment in its listeners—as proved to be the case when Leningrad’s Maly Theater nonetheless put on such a concert in 1929. Yet on some level he must have felt free to do pretty much as he liked.
The following year, when the full theatrical production premiered, the reviews from the so-called proletarian critics were largely negative. But that didn’t prevent The Nose from having a respectable run of sixteen performances over the course of the next two seasons. And Shostakovich remained undaunted, apparently, for by 1934 he had produced a second and even more ambitious opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, which garnered enormous popular acclaim. Only then did the composer come in for the full brunt of officialdom’s wrath: in 1936, after Lady Macbeth had received over two hundred performances in Moscow, Leningrad, and abroad, a vicious review in Pravda, famously titled “Muddle Instead of Music,” not only closed the show but destroyed forever the youthful composer’s career in opera. Though he went on to complete fifteen occasionally remarkable symphonies, fifteen string quartets of almost uniformly high quality, and numerous song cycles, chamber works, movie scores, and patriotic anthems, Shostakovich never again finished a work in the genre in which, at twenty-two, he had seemed potentially more promising than even Mozart or Rossini had been at that age.
That is our loss. But some losses, at least in music, can be redeemed eventually, and William Kentridge has now given this youthfully exuberant opera—forsaken in 1930 and only revived in 1974, when Shostakovich himself was near death—a restoration that is also a new view. Kentridge has approached The Nose from the perspective of a middle-aged man at the turn of the twenty-first century, and in doing so he has lent it a gravitas and a pathos, though also a kind of visual playfulness and excitement, that were not necessarily there in the original. A South African artist with deep roots in the anti-apartheid movement as well as a theatrical affinity for forms like mime, dance, film, and puppet-theater, Kentridge is the perfect person to appreciate both Shostakovich’s dour sense of humor and his frenetic sadness. As a director, he is clearly drawn to the showmanship of Shostakovich’s music—the virtuosic three-minute percussion interlude, for instance, which separates the second scene from the third, or the zany, noise-making instruments and bellowing trombones that lend a circuslike atmosphere to some of the proceedings—but he is equally attracted to what Grigory Kozintsev (a movie director who worked with Shostakovich over the course of both their lives) called his “feeling for tragedy” and his “virulent hatred of all that degrades man.” By using his own personal obsessions to bring out the darker side of Shostakovich, Kentridge also takes us closer to Gogol, as if each artist’s vision became multiplied and enlarged, the more refractions it went through.
Kentridge is obsessed, first and foremost, with rhythm: with how a drawn line stops and starts, or how a curve twirls around itself; with the way a dancer’s movement echoes but also seems to give rise to the music behind it, and the way stillness in dance corresponds to silence; with the fact that our bodies love speed and motion, twirling and leaping, but our minds need intermittent repose. And this preoccupation with rhythm, it turns out, is also at the heart of Shostakovich’s opera (not to mention Gogol’s story, where, even in translation, the deceptively flat prose style depends on rhythmic fluctuations and feints to convey its true import). In just about all the sections of the score that are choral or heavily instrumental, a driving, forward-moving impulse infuses the music and thereby infuses us, so that we may find ourselves invisibly bouncing in our seats with a combination of nervousness and excitement (a combination that Valery Gergiev’s skillful conducting of the Met orchestra enhances to its fullest). And then, in the recitative sections of the opera, we are made to pause, and rest, and feel, and think; our forward movement is held up for a time, so that we can fully sense the pleasure of its resumption. Kentridge follows every one of these minute shifts of pace in his visual accompaniments to the music—that profuse swirl of film images and hand-drawn cartoons and constructivist shapes and Russian or English words which he projects onto the backdrop (only in this case it is more like a foredrop) that surrounds the human singers in this performance.
Inexplicable mysteries are a given in this plot, so the occasionally obscure or confusing elements introduced by Kentridge’s visual images don’t necessarily distort the opera. In fact, Shostakovich had already added in a few extra mysteries of his own—one of them in the interpolated stage-coach scene where the nose is captured by the police. (In the Gogol story, this happens offstage.) Here, among other things, Shostakovich shows us the officers’ brutal treatment of a comely bagel-selling wench; and there is also a strange old lady who, surrounded and contradicted by her female servants, lugubriously predicts her own death. I understand what the brutal officers are doing here (Shostakovich had a lifelong terror of anyone in uniform—not an unreasonable attitude, in the Soviet Union), but I can’t for the life of me figure out what that old woman represents. What did this episode mean to him, and why did he think it had anything to do with Gogol’s plot? Never mind, though; Kentridge has skillfully costumed the woman in a long, doleful mask that links her to other masked characters in the crowd, and this makes her seem a natural part of the overall carnivaleque, chaotic atmosphere. The chaos is charming—I especially loved the twirling of the fan-shaped red inserts in the officers’ gray coats—but it can also be potentially intimidating and even frightening, and that doubleness perfectly suits the opera’s mood.
What makes The Nose a comic opera, finally, is that Kovalyov gets his lost nose back again in the end. What are the chances of that? What is the likelihood that everything should come right as easily and as inexplicably as it goes wrong? “Improbable,” to say the least—or at any rate that’s the word Gogol himself uses. “Only now, on thinking it all over, we can see that there is a great deal that is improbable in it…,” this deadpan narrator says of his own tale as it is drawing to a close:
Quite apart from the really strange fact of the supernatural disappearance of the nose and its appearance in various parts of town in the guise of a State Councillor, how did Kovalyov fail to realise that he could not advertise about his nose in a newspaper?… But what is even stranger and more incomprehensible than anything is that authors should choose such subjects… In the first place it’s of no benefit whatever to our country, and in the second place—but even in the second place there’s no benefit whatsoever… All the same, on second thoughts, there really is something in it. Say what you like, but such things do happen—not often, but they do happen.
And on this characteristically suspended, utterly irreducible note, somewhere between assertion and doubt, mockery and seriousness, the Gogol story ends.
When I first read the Shostakovich libretto (which I did while listening to the excellent Mariinsky recording of The Nose, also conducted by Gergiev), I was disappointed to see that he had left this ending out of his opera. Mainly, I suppose, this was because his libretto borrowed only from the story’s dialogue and not from the narrative voice; but perhaps another cause was that even Shostakovich, reckless as he was in his youth, might have hesitated to sound such a skeptical note in Stalin’s Soviet Union. In any case, because I had noticed the omission, I was particularly delighted to see these sentences reappear toward the end of Kentridge’s production.
I had thought this was yet another example of Kentridge’s special genius at work, but Laurel Fay (who, as Shostakovich’s most thorough and rigorous biographer, knows more about him than anyone else) told me that Kentridge did not introduce the Gogolian narration into the opera; that had been done earlier, in the 1974 Moscow Chamber Opera Theater production by Boris Pokrovsky. What a bittersweet pleasure it must have brought to the composer when, at the very end of his life, after years of silence and suppression, he was finally able to see his great opera restored to the stage, with a small but important addition that made the whole work even stronger and more virulently Gogolian.
Contributor’s Note: Wendy Lesser’s Music for Silenced Voices: Shostakovich and His Fifteen Quartets will be published in 2011 by Yale University Press. The author of eight previous books (including one novel), Lesser is the founding editor of The Threepenny Review. She divides her year between Berkeley and New York.