MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

A Nose Job That Works

Study for The Nose by Wm Kentridge; photo by Nick Heavican

Study for The Nose by Wm Kentridge; photo by Nick Heavican

I met with an interesting group today for the Met’s HD simulcast of The Nose. A few of us recalled and shared our impressions of the Return of Ulysses production by Stephen Stubbs’ Pacific MusicWorks, which featured the unforgettable work of director William Kentridge and the Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa.

The excellence of Kentridge’s Shostakovich production – originating in 2010 and the Met’s first staging of The Nose – comes from his approach to the opera’s absurdism. Together with his first-rate design team, Kentridge gives full scope to this example of Shostakovich’s unbridled imagination, refusing to settle for a merely surreal comic tone.

With the opera’s massive cast and complex array of minor parts, Kentridge could have all too easily overwhelmed us with visual distractions, yet the many layers he adds to the narrative – the acres of newsprint reconfigured as collage, the animated film segments showing the separate “life” enjoyed by the autonomous Nose, and the urban chaos of early-Bolshevik Petersburg/Leningrad – all cohere and enhance the opera’s effectiveness.

Nikolai Gogol’s 1836 short story about the hapless assessor Platon Kuzmich Kovalyov – who wakes up after getting a shave from his aggressive barber to discover his nose has gone missing – predates Kafka’s The Metamorphosis by more than three-quarters of a century. (Along with its Kafka reference, Philip Roth’s The Breast reverses Gogol’s conceit into synecdoche.)

Like the German playwright Georg Büchner (Woyzeck dates from the same time), Gogol inspired a modernist opera in the following century. Berg’s take on his source became an instant classic, while Shostakovich’s disappeared for decades. Kentridge in turn makes this fascinating score, which soon after its premiere staging in 1930 fell into oblivion, come alive for the 21st century. (What other operas involve a declaration of independence by body parts? I can only think of Poulenc’s Les mamelles de Tirésias, with its breasts-turned-to-balloons that float away from the fed-up Thérèse – but she celebrates her sex change.)

This ranks among the finest new productions the Met has ventured under Peter Gelb’s tenure. What an illuminating discovery this score is for anyone whose familiarity with Shostakovich is limited to the Fifth Symphony or even the great string quartets. The incendiary brilliance of the young artist – he had already made a splash with his First Symphony at age 19 – is almost frightening. Sheer invention abounds in every corner of the orchestra, including innovative writing for percussion, along with a declamatory setting of the text that carries Mussorgsky’s ideas of natural musical speech rhythm forward – Shostakovich isn’t afraid of dispensing with the comforts of mere melody.

Young Shostakovich

Young Shostakovich

It all drives home how much the art of opera lost as the result of the dreadful turning point in Shostakovich’s career, when his next opera was denounced by Stalin’s culture police six years after The Nose came and went. My friend Roger Downey, a superb critic and an expert in opera and theater, wondered how Shostakovich would have developed if he hadn’t been forced to bend to the strictures of Socialist Realism. The Nose contains so many intriguing what-ifs in that regard.

One quibble with the production – or perhaps with the structure of the opera itself: up to the end of the second act, the story follows Kovalyov’s desperate quest for his nose-gone-rogue clearly enough. (A wonderful idea was to provide ad hoc “entr’acte” music by having the orchestra improvise on the ritual of tuning.) So what’s all the business with the police and the train station in the third act? Why do they suddenly turn on the Nose and subdue it? Of course the absurdism is only strengthened by playing the narrative logic “straight,” but here it just becomes confusing.

The Nose of course demands to be read as an allegory – whether of the gullibility of us readers (Gogol), or of social hierarchy and the indifference of government bureaucracy (not so interesting), or of the inner division we feel as creative individuals (Kentridge’s take).

It occurred to me, especially from our current perspective, that The Nose could also be viewed as an allegory for the tension in early Modernism between the purist objective of autonomy (the abstract ideal) and the mongrel forms of the avant-garde imagination. Shostakovich himself emphasized the centrality of collaboration in this opera, its status as music theater and not “pure” music – precisely the strengths of Kentridge’s production.

In a recent review of Jacques Rancière’s Aisthesis, Hal Foster evaluates the French philosopher’s model of three “regimes” of art in the Western tradition. He points out that the new stylistic freedom permitted by the “aesthetic regime” – in which “the image is no longer the codified expression of a thought or feeling” (Rancière) – doesn’t require a contradiction between Modernist abstraction and the Dadaist/Surrealist “mission to reconnect art and life” in Rancière’s model: “the aesthetic regime is precisely this dialectic of modernist purity and avant-garde worldliness.”

Filed under: aesthetics, Metropolitan Opera, opera

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