On the Met’s crazy production of the Nose

Crazy is the key word here. Do not go to see this opera expecting anything normal.. or in fact expecting anything you can imagine – this is an invitation into a madman’s head for 2 hours – no intermissions, no order, no explanations. I happen to rather like this sort of thing.

The story by Gogol can only be described as bizarre. Bureaucrat Kovalyov loses his nose. His nose then gets a life of its own, becomes a state councillor and achieves a higher social status than Kovalyov. Attempts to get it back by going to the police, trying to publish an ad in the paper, etc are futile. Eventually the nose gets captured and somehow reattached, making Kovalyov very happy. The endъ.

On stage we actually see the nose, it’s person-sized, papier-mache-like and rather cheeky. We also see a lady singing ‘bagels, bagels, bagels’ on and on in a really high pitched voice.
This production is set in the 30s of the 20th century, the time of the composer, Shostakovich, who (until late in life) did not get on with the Soviet government very well and was denounced by Stalin twice. He wrote this opera at the time of ‘Pravda’, rising bureaucracy and conformity. Understanding that era helps appreciate this completely insane opera. Beyond what can only be called absurdity, there are deep political themes, some more obvious than others.

A quick note on the creator of this story – Gogol. He is a fascinating author, who wrote some of the scariest horror stories I’ve ever read, Viy, for example. His ability to terrify is comparable to Edgar Allan Poe, no grown men can escape without nightmares. Unlike Poe, however, he also wrote really funny comedies, such as Revizor. Although the Nose is really amusing at times (it can’t be said enough, there is a giant nose walking around pretending to be a councillor) I would not call it a comedy. Some funny scenes quickly become very intense, even uncomfortable and escalate into something surreal and scary at times. This production by Kentridge captured that atmosphere perfectly.

The best thing about this production is without a doubt it’s set – constantly changing, made up of collages of various Russian and English words, giant newspapers, video, moving shadows – it’s a work of art on its own. I guess the set was very much inspired by the art of the Russian poet Mayakovky, who arguably started those big bold posters with big bold words in Soviet Union. In fact, the most fun museum I’ve ever been to was Mayakovsky’s museum in Moscow and the atmosphere in the Nose was like being back there but it came alive and was dancing some mad futuristic dance.

The only negative note has to be on some of the acting. It is purely personal as I get really annoyed at really exaggerated, Jim Carey-esque facial expressions. I believe it was unnecessary and that the comedy in a story was strong enough without it. But I would be ready to admit that I am strange like that and many others would love the acting precisely for its exaggerations.

The lead actor, Paulo Szot, however, played a very difficult part very well. His operatic laughing was quite something. The actor who played his servant Ivan was also pretty good, particularly during his balalaika solo. The police inspector, Andrey Popov was a perfect comical actor with a strong presence on stage to make scenes of bribery hilarious.

In the end of the opera one of the actors exclaimed: ‘who would write such a thing? This story is implausible!’ This nicely concludes the production’s ability to laugh at its self, which I imagine is quite rare at the Met. Overall, I will give it 4 stars and recommend it as an experience you would never forget.

P.S. My visit was made even better as I won free tickets to next the opera by answering the question about Shostakovich right. Hoorah!

On the Met’s crazy production of the Nose

(The picture is from NY Times)

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