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Monday, March 8, 2010

A Nose Not to Be Sniffed At

What to say about The Nose? No, really, I mean that. What to say about it? I walked out of the hall speechless, unable to articulate what I'd just seen. It is what it is, I'll say that. It demands to be taken on its own terms. While it may not be the greatest opera of the 20th-century, or even the greatest opera written by Dmitri Shostakovich, it is a thrill, an unjustly neglected work, and easily the greatest opera about an anthropomorphic, disembodied nose since Arianna a Naso.

The Met's first production of the piece, by visual artist William Kentridge, most certainly does take the piece on its own terms, answering the absurdity of the libretto with visual absurdities, and answering the flatly confrontational music with a visually flat, confrontational aesthetic. In response to Shostakovich's musical collages and abstractions, Kentridge has gleefully ransacked the genius of the early Soviet avant-garde to pack the set with found Russian texts and with geometric shapes; the moving projections constantly superimposed upon them recalled the Russian masters of animation and montage. Using a newspaper-office scene as his starting point, Kentridge adopted a color scheme that was black and white and red all over, plastered with faux newsprint and popping with sensational "headlines" (you can switch off your Met Titles: supertitles are projected onstage, incorporated seamlessly into the text-heavy visual design), and the rumor-maddened townsfolk of the chorus are constantly reading giant, stylized papers as they march across the stage.

There were a few opening-night glitches; in one scene, the a cartoon horse supposed to be pulling the set across the stage was accidentally projected a few too many feet ahead of it; at the end of Act One, the curtain fell on top of the set instead of in front, and had to be tugged down by an unseen stagehand; my post-HOC drinking buddies, all of whom (oddly enough) were apparently fluent in Russian, complained of misspellings in the Cyrillic text projected onstage, and I even caught one in an English supertitle (FIGHTEN when it should've been FRIGHTEN, if you're reading this and work for the Met). But I think that's pretty much it as far as flaws in the execution.

Am I focusing too much on the visuals? Am I making it sound as if William Kentridge, and not the beautiful, gifted, charming South Pacific baritone Paolo Szot was the star of the show? Well y'know what, he (Kentridge) was. Of course, each member of the cast received warm applause, especially Szot, and even more especially Andrei Popov, whose performance as the Police Inspector required him to sing most of his lines way up in the treble clef; living musical treasure Valery Gergiev earned the audience's general adoration (though as he ascended the podium to begin the piece, we heard, bizarrely, what sounded like a solitary boo. What the fuck happened there?? "Maybe he was saying 'bra-VOO,'" I suggested to a friend afterward; "Maybe he was saying BOO-URNS," replied friend. Or maybe he was a disgruntled emigré booing Gergiev's cozy relationship with BFF Vladimir Putin? It was hella Slavs in the house Friday night).

But the greatest applause went to Kentridge. He deserved it. Not only did the production rise to the challenges of a, let's face it, very challenging opera, it was a work of art in its own right. When I was in school, I used to look at the photographs of the old Ballets Russes and its collaborations between the most daring composers, dancers, and visual artists of their era and think, why not now? Why couldn't we have an institution today that marries the most gifted visual artists to the greatest performers and composers of classical music? At The Nose, I felt as if it were finally happening, as if I were finally seeing opera live up to its potential as a place where challenging music, classic literature and deeply satisfying visual art can appear on a single stage and add up to something even greater.

Okay, but no, let's talk about the music. The history of Russian art having been written at the barrel of a gun, it's difficult to imagine that Shostakovich might once have been responsible for some of his era's hairiest avant-gardisms, and the sound of The Nose will certainly come as a shock to anyone familiar with Shostakovich chiefly through his Greatest Hits. It does have its moments of weird beauty, however, brought to glowing life by Gergiev's band and by the cast's perplexingly vast parade of minor players, and when the score's ostentatious complexity became baffling, as it was surely designed to, it was never allowed to become totally obscure.

For me, Szot was the great unknown here, since I am a neglectful faggot and have not kept up with the world of Musical Theatre. Would he have the musical chops, or the vocal power, to get his part across from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera? Answer: YES. He rose to the opera's musical challenges as ably as its considerable dramatic challenges—he made me care about an unappealing character's progress through a series of impossible situations.

If only there were an HD broadcast this season, to record Szot's performance; if only there were plans to revive this production at the house. Everyone should get a chance to see this thing. The first unambiguous artistic triumph brought into existence by the Gelb regime and a resounding vindication of its values, the synergy of the Kentridge/Gergiev/Szot Nose represents everything the opera can be. It's enough to revive one's hope for opera as a medium, and for the Metropolitan Opera as an institution.

1 comment:

Will said...

One should give Mr. Szot his due; he had a lengthy and very honorable operatic career pre-South Pacific, including an exemplary Belcore in l'Elisir d'Amore at NYCO. None of that, however, prepared me for the way he aced The Nose's protean vocal demands. There's clearly a great deal more to Paolo Szot than physical beauty and an agreeable baritone voice.