Nose — quick review

ADDED LATER: The future of classical music connection. Too often we worship at the shrine of the great composers, and react as if every note they wrote needs to be taken very seriously. Which means we sometimes miss the most obvious things that — if we found them in something that isn’t classical music — we’d react to instantly.

In this case, what we might not get is that Shostakovich was a 22 year-old brat when he wrote The Nose in the 1920s, and that — unrestrained brattiness here — he piled on 1920s ironies that just don’t mean very much today. 

Shostakovich, The Nose, at the Met. A boring evening, petty much blank, except for some stunts — nice ones — in the staging. 

Such a disappointment. I’d been looking forward to this.

But the problems, I thought, started with the piece itself. It’s an extended jape, built on antique irony. It reminded me of many current bands (those who don’t follow pop might have seen some of them on Saturday Night Live) — bands where everything has layers of irony, every moment of the music, every word of the lyrics, everything the band members wear, every move they make onstage.

Someone immersed in pop and in our current culture decodes all that without needing to think about it. The Nose is also full of irony, unending irony, irony in just about every phrase of the music, and every scene of the drama, every word of the libretto. But it’s the irony of a 22 year-old (S’s age when he wrote the piece), living in the 1920s.

So we can’t decode it. The production tried to add a translation/gloss of what was going on, in words and images projected on the set, almost like graffiti. Not a bad idea, in theory, but hopeless in practice. Since I couldn’t decode the irony embedded in the piece, I didn’t care about the comments the production added — or at least I couldn’t strongly connect them with the opera — even though the visuals (less so the words) were very sharp.

What also didn’t help: Gergiev seemed to be conducting on autopilot, efficiently, but without making any points. And this score is full of points to be made. Almost all of it is odd, exaggerated (deliberately so), grasping for attention. Again, if we were 22 in 1928 (when S finished the piece), we’d know why we we’re being grasped. But not now. The conductor has to help us, has to make each moment sharper, give each orchestral gesture some special tone.

Didn’t help, either, that the orchestra still seemed to be feeling its way into the piece. And another problem — the concept of the piece is pretty slight, extending one very simple joke out way beyond its laugh-by date. Guy wakes up, his nose is gone. Nose is seen all over town, passing for human. Nose is hunted down. Guy gets nose back.

It’s funny in the Gogol tale on which the opera is based. But on stage, an episode that can be tastily described in a page or two gets stretched out to many minutes. You start to wonder why. What’s the point? Are we being told — with heavy irony — that people just conform, that if a nose has proper papers, nobody notices that it’s a nose? We get it. But the opera still has many minutes — hours — left to go.

(An opera with a similar problem: William Schuman’s The Mighty Casey. based on “Casey at the Bat,” stretched out with incidents not in the poem way beyond what the concept can bear.)

Too bad. On paper, the pieces all seemed right — Shotakovich, Gergiev, the right director, William Kentridge, a good mix of singers. But it bombed, at least for me. And I think the problems could at least have been foreseen. 

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Comments

  1. Janis says

    I would hope that something called “The Nose” was filled with irony, compared to all the other things it could be filled with. :-)

    Sorry, was that out loud?

    Off to a work conference for the next few days …

  2. says

    as per your added note…….

    Composers have definite talents and weaknesses. To think they can be brilliant stringing together pitch sequences, changing up rhythm patterns, modulating harmonies, intuitively placing interpretive marks, etc………well, they’re not. They spike in one, maybe three areas. It’s the job of me, the interpretive artist, to clean it up, to enhance or edit the score, so that the spirit of the work shines. Sometimes, when the composer is dead, this seems unorthodox. I don’t care. It’s not about me or about you. It’s about the piece. If the composer’s alive, I wear him down, or he is self-assured enough to accept my changes. Or, we negotiate until BOTH of us are happy. No compromise on my part. I am very clear where the boundaries are between the gifts of a generative artist and those of an interpretive artist. Ultimately, it’s about the score; not about the composer or the performer.

    (btw, I too spike in maybe 1 to 3 areas and have to work hard at the rest, with a lot of help)

    Nicely put, Maria. Composers may not realize (to give one example of what happens) that their markings aren’t clear. They need to listen to performers who tell them this.

  3. says

    They spike in one, maybe three areas. It’s the job of me, the interpretive artist, to clean it up, to enhance or edit the score, so that the spirit of the work shines. Sometimes, when the composer is dead, this seems unorthodox. I don’t care. It’s not about me or about you. It’s about the piece. If the composer’s alive, I wear him down, or he is self-assured enough to accept my changes.