“Without a nose, a fellow is neither fish nor fowl,” the noseless collegiate Assessor Kovalyov sings as he struggles to understand his predicament in Dmitri Shostakovich’s absurdist opera, The Nose.
Shostakovich wrote his opera (from the 1835 Gogol short story) in 1927, when he and the young Russian Communist State were both in shaky but high spirits about the prospects for a Great Utopian future. Social and political mayhem from the 1917 Revolution were still in the air, and some whiffs of Stalinist violence hinted at what was to come.
Even so, it was clear enough that everything in the world had been turned upside down, and Gogol’s screwball tale— about a minor official in St. Petersburg who wakes up one morning to find his nose has disappeared— had a tone as fitting as any other to tell to the Soviet Union’s new populist audience.
In Gogol’s story, which is closely followed in the opera, Kovalyov’s runaway nose shows up in a barber’s loaf of bread and a church, assumes the identity of a state official of much higher rank, and, like a viral video, is sighted all over town. Kovalyov chases it in a panic, and Gogol takes satirical pokes at city dwellers’ penchant for gossip and speculation.
He particularly ridicules the newspapers of the day for their unreliable contents and practices. Imagine— back in 1835 the media were prone to spread nonsense! Not only that, but there were corrupt police inspectors and incompetent doctors, too!
Now jump ahead to the 21st Century and the live, kaleidoscopically imaged, video- and film-projected HD version of The Nose. In this production, created and directed in 2010 by the South African artist William Kentridge, Shostakovich’s lively two-act work is presented in a single 135-minute showing and conceived with elaborate multimedia technology that reflect our times stylistically, historically and politically.
Whirlwind of images
While the Shostakovich music remains jaunty and, except in a few scenes, musically and theatrically functional (he was only 20 when he wrote The Nose), Kentridge’s mise en scène is a hyper-collaged whirlwind of still images and animations on shifting, overlaid projected backdrops, moveable sections of the set, cramped rooms set at skewed angles and cockeyed processions where extras promenade on slanted walkways. Storefront signs, errant Cyrillic letters and lines from the libretto twirl by in Russian and English.
It’s all seemingly chaotic, although one advertising slogan from a barbershop—“We also let blood”— conveys an ominous tone. A nose may be just a nose, but a lost one can carry the odor of allegory.
For the Live-HD performance, the entire screen is wallpapered with black-and-white blotched newsprint, pasted-in photographs from the 1920s, shadowy images of skeletal bridges and twisted metal sculptures, and an eerie disjointed black horse that skitters around and, in one sequence, is mounted by the renegade schnozz.
Said schnozz alters in size as it inserts itself into St. Petersburg’s affairs. Using his own nose as a model, Kentridge designed multiple images of it: a walking, singing and dancing person-sized puppet nose, who also changes clothes, while several silhouettes of a proboscis float in profile on different screens. When Kovalyov’s nose is found and returned - in a handkerchief - it is face sized, as ordinary as yours or mine.
The jumble of images in The Nose – which also includes floating red circles, black triangles, penciled sketches of Stalin’s inimitable, haunting moustache and grainy film clips— are collaged from the aging records and refuse of an historical moment whose styles, like Kovalyov’s nose, disappeared from Russian life by the late 1920s. The same goes for the costuming and movement, all of which references the then-explosively innovative artistic trends of Cubo-Futurism, Suprematism, Constructivism, Acmeism and the experimental theater of Vsevolod Meyerhold.
Look closely at the flickering montage projections (championed by the filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein) and you’ll see hints of Kazimir Malevich’s geometric forms, the unbuilt visionary tower of Vladimir Taitlin, and the free-floating typography of the poetry and artist bookmakers of the era. The film clips, which include iconic shots from Russian cinema classics and a young Shostakovich himself playing piano, are stunning documents of urban bustle and promise.
In a rocking chair, too
It’s all a reminder that before the Stalinist regime and its imposition of “socialist realism,” Russia had an avant-garde as adventurous as any in the world.
Kentridge, who was born in Johannesburg, experienced censorship and repression in South Africa. Throughout his career, he has been tuned into to the interplay of the arts and the proclivities of political forces to undermine signs of free expression. The exuberance of his production, delightfully performed by the Metropolitan Opera cast, with Pavel Smelkov conducting, is a testimony to the vitality of artistic license for all eras and in multiple genres, styles and media.
Enjoy it— and, please, unlike the audience I sat with, laugh. The image of nose sitting in a rocking chair, reading a newspaper, doesn’t need to be taken seriously.