by Lynne Gray, PhD
Please note this can be viewed at www.metopera.org.
Okay, this just may be the weirdest opera of all time. It all begins with a perfectly absurd scenario: A hapless Russian bureaucrat has a shave at his usual barber’s house. Next morning, his barber finds a nose in his bread, which of course causes his wife to blame him for cutting off a customer’s nose and send him off into the street to get rid of it. Meanwhile, our ‘hero,’ Kovalyov, wakes up that morning to discover that his nose has gone missing. The Nose was Dmitri Shostakovich’s first opera, a decidedly satirical work, completed in 1928 and based on Nikolai Gogol’s 1836 story of the same name. Shostakovich’s adaptation embraces the surrealism of the source material which is aptly supported by the dizzying, graphic staging and projections designed by artist-director William Kentridge. Baritone Paulo Szot (of Broadway’s South Pacific fame and we’ve also seen him earlier in Manon) leads the cast as Kovalyov, the hapless bureaucrat whose nose has mysteriously gone missing. Alexander Lewis as the Nose and Andrey Popov as the Police Inspector co-star, and Pavel Smelkov conducts.
Shostakovich used a montage of different styles, including folk music, popular Russian songs, and modern atonality to tell this bizarre story. The apparent chaos in both music and dramatic action is given at least some structure through the use of more traditional formal musical devices such as canons and quartets, a technique taken from Alban Berg’s Wozzeck.
So, this is generally performed as an opera in 3 acts and 10 scenes – without intermission! Happily, you can always press pause and come back if you do decide to spend a couple of very unusual operatic hours with this one. As I’ve said, Yakovlevich, the barber, finds a nose in his bread. His wife demands that he dispose of it, so he tries to get rid of it in the street but is foiled by constantly running into people he knows. He finally throws it into the Neva River, but is seen by a police officer and taken away for questioning. Meanwhile, Kovalyov wakes up and finds his nose missing. After the initial shock, he sets out to find it. He spots his nose praying in the Kazan Cathedral (it is now the size of a human being), and since it has acquired a higher rank than Kovalyov, it refuses to have any dealings with him, and leaves.
Continuing his search, Kovalyov visits the newspaper office to place an advertisement about the loss of his nose. Unfortunately, they are dealing with a Countess’s missing dog. After explaining his loss, his request to place an ad is refused on the grounds of the newspaper’s reputation. Demonstrating his actual loss, the clerk suggests he should sell his story instead, but Kovalyov is insulted by the offer of a pinch of snuff and so leaves. Meanwhile, the nose is living the high life and enjoying the sights of St. Petersburg.
The police are finally willing to take up the search. A group of policemen go to the railway station to prevent the nose from escaping. The nose runs in and tries to stop a train, but a general chase ensues which results in its capture. The nose is then beaten back down into its normal size, wrapped in a cloth, and returned to Kovalyov.
Kovalyov, however, is unable to reattach it. Nor can a doctor. He suspects that he has been placed under a spell by a woman called Madame Podtochina because he would not marry her daughter. He writes a letter asking her to undo the spell, but she misinterprets the letter and believes it is a renewed proposal to her daughter. In the city, crowds fueled by rumors of a runaway nose, gather until the police have to restore order.
The Epilogue: Kovalyov wakes up in the morning with his nose mysteriously reattached and dances a little polka for joy. Yakovlevich has been released from prison and arrives as usual to shave him. Afterwards Kovalyov wanders along Nevsky Prospekt greeting acquaintances, while people he passes discuss the story.
Definitely a unique experience at the opera – both the music and the story – but if you are craving something way out of the ordinary these days, here is your chance!
1. Paulo Szot as Kovalyov in the Met’s production of Shostakovich’s “The Nose” in 2013. Photo Credit: Ken Howard /Metropolitan Opera.
2. Alexander Lewis as the Nose in a scene from Dmitri Shostakovich’s “The Nose” at the Metropolitan Opera, 2013. Photo Credit: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera.
3. Paulo Szot as Kovalyov in the Met’s production of Shostakovich’s “The Nose” in 2013. Photo Credit: Ken Howard /Metropolitan Opera.
4. A scene from Dmitri Shostakovich’s “The Nose” at the Metropolitan Opera, 2013. Photo Credit: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera.
5. Andrey Popov as the Police Inspector and Alexander Lewis as the Nose in a scene from Dmitri Shostakovich’s “The Nose” at the Metropolitan Opera, 2013. Photo Credit: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera.
6. Paulo Szot as Kovalyov in the Met’s production of Shostakovich’s “The Nose” in 2013. Photo Credit: Ken Howard /Metropolitan Opera.