The Nose

Music by Dmitri Shostakovich, libretto by the composer with Yevgeny Zamyatin, Georgi Ionin and Alexander Preis, based on the story by Nikolai Gogol
Met Opera on Demand
Metropolitan Opera House, New York
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The Nose Credit: Ken Howard

The most famous nose in theatre is Cyrano de Bergerac’s. The most famous nose in opera is Kovalyov’s and he appears in Dmitri Shostakovich’s The Nose, which is based on Nicolai Gogol’s short story of the same name.

Gogol was the supreme satirist of Russian society in the reign of Nicolas I. The opera, part fantasy, part satire and part psychosexual symbolism, premièred in Leningrad in 1930, and, luckily, just before Stalin clamped down, censoring, imprisoning and murdering artists who did not conform to communist ideology.

Shostakovich, 22 years old, said his opera is a protest against the bigoted empty idiocy of the philistines and that the text is more important than the music. The music, harsh, frantic, jarringly absurd, much influenced by Alban Berg’s Wozzeck and Sergei Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges, is there to complement Gogol’s grotesquery.

The Nose is a collector’s item and, not surprisingly, is not performed that often. It is fiercely difficult to sing, act and play. Few opera houses can afford it. There are 80 characters. This performance, directed and designed by William Kentridge and conducted by Pavel Smelkov, was seen at The Metropolitan New York in 2013 and starred Paulo Szot.

Kentridge’s amazing production is animated paranoia. The cast is dwarfed by the projections behind and above them of Russian and English texts, slogans, Russian expressionistic art, maps and shadow play. There are newsreels of Stalin smoking his pipe, Shostakovich playing his piano and the proletariat on the march.

The characters are ugly, shrieking caricatures, living in a crazy, surreal and hysterical world, So besotted are the gangbangers with the Nose, the police have to be brought in Kovalyov (Paulo Szot), a junior civil servant, wakes one morning to find he has lost his nose, the ultimate loss of face and a classic example of having a castration complex.

A major scene takes place in a newspaper office when the clerks refuse to publish an advert about a lost nose because it might be a coded message or fake news. Meanwhile, the Nose has taken on life of its own and is wandering round the streets of St Petersburg with an umbrella, chasing girls. He is seen riding a horse and mounting a plinth.

The Nose, beaten up the public and shot by a police officer, is played by Alexander Lewis, who is completely hidden in an enormous nose and only his dancing legs are visible. When Kovalyov gets his nose back, it won’t stick on. “What have I done to deserve this?” he cries; and cries and cries. He has to be careful when the barber and doctor are around. You never know what they might cut off next.

From then on, Shostakovich is less spiky and gives the audience what they are more used to musically with a quartet and a rousing ensemble (“Where is the Nose”) for a finale.

Szot’s performance is a tour de force. Andrey Popov is excellent as the police officer who returns the nose to Kovalyov and has an embittered rant about how bad society is. No surprise then that there were no revivals of The Nose in the Soviet Union until 1974.

There are a number of ways of tapping into this opera and others at will. The Met Opera On Demand service offers annual ($149.99) and monthly ($14.99) subscriptions as well as a one-off payment ($4.99) for those who have limited time or only want to watch the occasional opera.

Reviewer: Robert Tanitch