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The Nose, The Trojans, and Issues of Popularity

Leaving aside the problem that William Kentridge’s spectacular production of The Nose at the Metropolitan Opera overwhelms Shostakovich’s 1928 chamber opera, leaving aside that one departs the house with the questionable sensation of having seen inspired stagecraft inflicted on a weak work, I merely wish to observe a series of paradoxes.
The Nose at the Met, with six performances, is such a hot show you can’t buy a ticket. An even greater surprise, alas, is that there were swaths of empty seats at Carnegie Hall earlier this month when Valery Gergiev (who also conducted The Nose) led his Kirov forces in a gripping two-night traversal of Berlioz’s underperformed masterpiece The Trojans. Gergiev’s transporting rendition of Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet at Carnegie in February also failed to fill the house. Neither The Trojans nor Romeo was staged. (Cf. my Trojans blog of March 14.)
Last season the Met gave us Robert LePage’s staging of Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust – a production festooned with magic tricks and yet innocent of Faust’s torments (my review appeared in the Times Literary Supplement.) Around the same time, Gergiev led the Kirov Orchestra and Chorus in Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky at Fisher Hall – a performance so right in timbre, so intense in feeling and projection, so searing in affect as to eclipse all memory of the Eisenstein film.
Next season the Met gives us the first two installments of a Lepage Ring. The most eager expectations of this heralded event are the most disturbing – Lepage’s Nibelheim, Lepage’s dragon, Lepage’s Ride of the Valkyries, Lepage’s Magic Fire. It would be a gauche understatement to suggest that the Ring is no more about those than The Damnation of Faust is about its Ride to the Abyss; unlike Berlioz, unlike Shostakovich, Wagner is a psychologist of genius.
Not long ago Gergiev toured a Kirov Ring whose inept staging diminished musical and psychological impact both. Those performances would have been stronger in concert. A friend who admires The Nose listened at the Met with his eyes shut. With his brain.


  1. Your comments were interesting to me because I just saw THE NOSE earlier this week and also came away with the feeling that the production had indeed overwhelmed the opera. In fact, I saw it as Kentridge’s show more than anyone else’s (for example, Shostakovich’s). This to me was really a weakness because, despite Kentridge’s truly inventive and fascinating work, I couldn’t call a production “spectacular” that managed to overpower the opera itself, rather than enhance it. In fact, I had more or less the same exact reaction when I saw Kentridge’s MoMA exhibit one week earlier. While I thought both (the exhibit and the opera) were brilliant in their execution, I also felt both to be, in certain respects, relentless — a case of style (elaboration and exploration of visual possibilities) overpowering substance. As to why it was such a hot ticket, it did get quite a bit of press, including music, art, and literary critics weighing in. Also, your comment about watching an opera in concert rather than a weak production was in fact exactly my thinking when I saw ATTILA at the Met two weeks ago. (About that production, in my opinion, the less said the better, to me clearly a case of, “What where they thinking?”)

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