Thursday, March 25, 2010

Missing Something


The Nose

Composed by Dmitri Shostakovich

Conducted by Valery Gergiev

Directed by William Kentridge

Starring Paulo Szot, Andrei Popov, Gordon Gietz

March 5-25, 2010

Metropolitan Opera

Based on a allegorical short story by Nikolai Gogol, Dmitri Shostakovich’s first opera The Nose follows a minor Russian bureaucrat who awakes to find that his proboscis is not only gone, but has begun seeking out better “friends” like higher-ups in the party, evading attempts at subduing, capturing and returning him to Kovalyov.

For such a lunatic tale, Shostakovich’s chaos mirrors it musically: the composer’s bold Nose score is among his brashest, with heavy doses of pummeling percussion—including an entire interlude of brutal banging—mixed with dissonance, crazy-quilt allusions to Russian folk tunes, and the usual plethora of in-jokes by an artist who simultaneously sent up and nodded to earlier composers. Only the most dedicated or foolhardy conductor would wade into such a satirical score, and Valery Gergiev, who has recorded and performed Shostakovich’s music all over the world, fills the bill. His most recent opera CD with his hometown Mariinsky Orchestra and Chorus on their own label is The Nose, recorded in St. Petersburg in 2008. Gergiev and friends give the unlikely juxtapositions of sounds a structure and inner logic to what seems unstructured and illogical.

But could he repeat that success at the Met with different musicians and singers? Partly, yes; perhaps due to the unavoidably episodic nature of The Nose onstage, the opera doesn’t hang together as well as it does when you listen to a recording, where you can imagine the perfect staging of your own. Gergiev harnesses the power of the forces of the Met Opera Orchestra and Chorus with his usual vigorousness—if anything, the percussion clashes pound more than on the CD—but he’s ultimately at the mercy of William Kentridge’s hit-or-miss production.

Kentridge, a South African artist who multi-media work is currently in vogue (there’s a related exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art right now), has certainly created an eye-popping visual experience to explain—or obscure, as the case may be—The Nose. From the start, Kentridge displays a welcome and tongue-in-cheek sleight of hand needed for this relentlessly risible story. But he pushes too far, often repeating his best bits (shadowy silhouettes that become Shostakovich or Stalin) and simply overdoing the extravagant visualization of the story, particularly when a man-size nose—with legs, for some reason—takes over.

The set’s paper-mache look mirrors a world that’s crumbling in front of Kovalyov’s very eyes, and the non-stop parade of projections are often witty—the surtitles are shown on the stage itself, sometimes obscuring readability—though Kentridge ends up recycling old tricks more to more until the limp finale.

Making his Met debut, Tony-winning South Pacific heartthrob Paulo Szot acquits himself marvelously as our hero Kovalyov, singing what sounds like authentic Russian in an extremely taxing role while climbing around, on and through Kentridge’s surrealistic set. Szot’s athleticism, combined with his innate musicality, makes this production a winner by a nose.

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