Dmitri Shostakovich's satirical opera, "The Nose," has only recently found a lasting place in the repertoire of American opera companies. The opera made its U.S. debut in Santa Fe in 1965, but did not gain much attention in the U.S. until the mid to late 2000s. By 2010, "The Nose" had been embraced by multiple enterprising opera companies, including the Metropolitan Opera in a co-production with the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence and the Opera National de Lyon. The Metropolitan Opera revived William Kentridge's visually riveting production this season and gave the opera full-scale exposure on 26 October, 2013 as the second feature of the internationally broadcasted Live in HD Series.
The opera is delightful in its absurdity and biting in its mockery. Kentridge and Catherine Meyburgh brought the slapstick adventures of the Nose to the stage with black and white footage of Anna Pavlova, politicians, pole vaulters, and others, projected with the Nose superimposed over their faces. The projections also worked as a perpetually shifting abstraction of the set, that interacted with the singers and the physical set in inventive ways.
Despite the bewitching effects of Kentridge's ingenious staging, the opera itself was, at times, problematic. The music, though daring, is wedded so firmly to its visual representation, that it does not stand quite so convincingly on its own. The orchestra score claims most of the opera's virtuosity. Under the baton of Pavel Smelkov, the orchestra built up the cacophonous phrases with assured intent and expressive dynamics; however the complexity of much of the opera's form was often overshadowed by the clamor.
As one of Shostakovich's early works, and the first of only two operas he wrote, the music is already replete with Shostakovich's signature style, but lacks much of its refinement. The vocal writing seemed to present an invigorating challenge to the enormous cast, though there were only two roles of notable length, the nose-less protagonist, Kovalyov, and the Police Inspector.
Brazilian baritone, Paulo Szot, in the role of Kovalyov, a bureaucrat who inexplicably loses his nose, sang with an earthy and personable tone that captured both the conversational flow of Shostakovich's syllabic vocal lines and the pitiable human side of this preposterous tale. Most impressive was Szot's unwavering stamina through the opera's relentlessly jagged vocal contour.
Andrey Popov, in the comparatively short, but still prominent role of the Police Inspector did not conserve his voice quite as well and developed a strained sound early on. This aside, his shrill tone suited the opportunistic Inspector and his pervading stage presence made his performance enjoyable.
Tenor Alexander Lewis made a short, but compelling appearance in the Nose's brief vocal scene. Lewis possessed a sharp, articulated sound that fitted the Nose's deliberate retorts with an appropriately mocking air. Soprano Ying Fang also deserves commendation for her portrayal of Madame Podtochina’s Daughter. Her voluptuous soprano was effortless and abundantly resonant.
Though not Shostakovich's ripest music, "The Nose" is laden with wit and excitement. William Kentridge's captivating production brings countless new layers of complexity to the opera's message and has doubtlessly immortalized Shostakovich's rare opera.