The Nose: In Focus

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The Nose In Focus

Premiere: Maly Opera Theater, St. Petersburg (then Leningrad), 1930

The first of only two completed operas by the great Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, The Nose is an iconoclastic and unusual work. It is based on a short story by Nikolai Gogol and tells of Major Kovalyov, a low-ranking government official in imperial St. Petersburg, who wakes up one morning to discover that his nose has left his face. As he attempts to recover and reattach the nose, Kovalyov makes his way around the city and in the process encounters a variety of characters, including suspicious policemen, apathetic clerks, and chattering townspeople. The story has fascinated readers for decades but evades easy analysis. It teems with social and political satire, and it is funny as well as slightly disturbing. Beyond that, though, a precise interpretation of this absurdist masterpiece is as elusive as the nose of the title. The opera is similar: its music embodies the spirit as well as the letter of the story—it is brash and giddy and relentlessly defies expectations. The score was written in the early days of the Soviet Union, when a permissive attitude toward the arts allowed for a brief flush of creativity. By the time it was produced, the government had begun the strict control of artistic expression that would dog Shostakovich throughout his career. The Nose was heard in several Western cities in the 1960s, but it was not performed again in the Soviet Union until 1974. A remarkable work in every sense, the opera’s message of general dissatisfaction speaks forcefully to our own times, with the composer’s genius bursting forth in its most youthful, unrepressed form.

The Creators
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–1975), one of the 20th century’s most prominent composers, wrote 15 symphonies and a large quantity of chamber music, as well as works in other genres. After The Nose, he completed just one other opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Shostakovich lived almost all of his life in his native city of St. Petersburg (later Leningrad), whose turbulent political history had a significant impact on his life and career. Yevgeny Zamyatin (1884–1937) was an author best known for his 1921 dystopian novel We (which influenced George Orwell’s 1984, among other works). Playwright Alexander Preis
(1906–1942) also co-wrote the libretto for Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Georgy Ionin was a teenaged drama student hoping to become a director when he worked with Shostakovich. Nikolai Gogol (1809–1852), born in present-day Ukraine, was among the leading Russian writers of the 19th century. His mastery of both realism and satire, seen in his short stories but also in the novel Dead Souls and the play The Inspector General, was hugely influential on Russian and international literature.

The Setting
The opera is set in St. Petersburg in the 1830s. At the time, the city was the capital of the Russian Empire and the center of a vast and complex bureaucracy. In the Met’s production, the time of the opera’s composition becomes an additional frame of reference.

The Music
The score of The Nose is as difficult to categorize as the genre-defying story that inspired it. Though essentially atonal and non-lyrical (even anti-lyrical), it also contains references, often satirical, to familiar musical genres. The strident and fragmented introduction sets the tone for the rest of the opera, with brass flourishes bringing to mind a circus march. Choral prayers appear in the cathedral scene, and a grotesque interpretation of a waltz accompanies the townspeople’s banal exchange of pleasantries in Scene 7. Elsewhere, snippets of other dance forms, such as the gallop and the polka, also create a satirical background to social interactions. One of the most remarkable passages of the score occurs in Scene 5, as men place classified ads at a newspaper office. It is an eight-voice canon punctuated by a bass drum, which segues into an instrumental interlude that sounds like a jumbled fugue. Still other passages avoid all tradition as known at the time of the opera’s composition and clearly point the way to the future: the striking three-minute interlude between Scenes 2 and 3, scored only for unpitched percussion, is considered one of the earliest examples of a percussion ensemble in Western music. Some of the solos of the more than 70 sung roles (several of which can be combined to be sung by a single performer) are based on familiar forms, such as the folk-like song in Scene 6 accompanied by the balalaika, the characteristic instrument of Russian folk music. However, most of the individual passages adhere very closely to the sound of Gogol’s words. There is great opportunity to express aspects of the various characters in these solo passages. The Police Inspector’s grating and insinuating lines, for example, are written in the highest tenor register, verging close to shouting.

The Nose at the Met
The Nose had its Met premiere in this production on March 5, 2010. Valery Gergiev conducted, with debuting artists Paulo Szot as Kovalyov, Andrey Popov as the Police Inspector, and Gordon Gietz as the Nose.

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