The Nose. It must be the most unromantic title for an opera, or a story for that matter, because Shostakovich’s opera started out as a short story by Gogol. It’s an unromantic opera. But it’s clever and crazy and utterly zany. This Russian classic is essentially the magic of making comedy out of absolutely nothing. In the Met Opera’s production, South African artist and director William Kentridge proves himself a master at creating that magic too.
In an arena where great staging is the norm, this production stands out as an artwork in itself. Kentridge’s incredible visual lexicon submerges the audience in the world of the Absurd. The opera may be titled The Nose, but it’s really about the hapless Russian bureaucrat Major Kovalyov who finds himself without a nose one day and is led a merry dance trying to get his appendage returned to his face. The score allows us to enjoy the Major’s agonies of embarrassment, the baker’s fear when he finds a stray nose in one of his loaves, the police who apprehend the nasal scoundrel and the townsfolk who discuss the merits of the story. Kentridge, however, gives us the full drama of the epic journey this escapee takes, creating a visual score that places the nose centre stage at all times. In fact, although the movie focuses on the stunning cast of singers, I am sure that sitting in the opera house in New York, you could find yourself distracted by the wanderings of the nose. There are times when the singers will be in what seems a teeny room against a massive expanse on which the Nose takes wing as a ballerina, or rears up on a horse.
It is no wonder that opera goers were bowled over by this production when it first opened in 2010. Kentridge has always proved himself an innovative theatre director, and his productions such as The Tall Horse or Woyzeck on the Highveld are legendary for their fantastic effects. Here he has chosen a work which is ideal to be teased into a sensory feast, with all the political imagery that has always underscored his work. Shostakovich’s music reflects the disjointed era he is depicting, and Kentridge uses a vast array of imagery from early Soviet modernism as his visual notation.
Instead of simply creating a backdrop to the opera, this is actually an animated film that accompanies the work. Using a base layer of old Russian encyclopaedias as the stage curtain, letters and symbols doodle across the set, gathering into one image, and then collapsing into something else. Russian writing criss-crosses the scene, while black and white images of people are stamped with a bright red cross, or perhaps a dunce hat.
The nose, as Kentridge explains, he modelled on his own statuesque feature. For him the tale explores the split within ourselves, “those parts that resist control by others”, paralleled by the artist’s lack of control over his creations. Sung by Australian Alexander Lewis, the Nose only gets a single aria. However, it keeps wandering across this gloriously absurd backdrop that sees a newsroom teetering precariously amid rolls of newsprint, Kovalyov’s tiny room a pinprick of light against the vast nightscape, and the city folk a mad assortment of colourful characters. Kentridge’s imagination seems to know no bounds as he amplifies the crazy story on a visual level that opens the opera to engage one cerebrally in a wild non-stop two hours.
This isn’t a work to transport you emotionally, as the productions before and after this one are, but it stays with you in a very different way. The boisterous energy in Shostakovich’s music makes great demands of the cast, but they hold their own in the midst of this dazzling visual display. The chorus are wonderfully crisp as they mirror the questions and comments that will buzz in your head as the saga unfolds. Paulo Szot has great presence as the unfortunate Major Kovalyov, whether bemoaning his fate, or feverishly trying to attach the nose again. His powerful voice resonates with the frustrations of a man caught in the disjointed web of a nightmare. Opposite him are some wonderful roles, among them the ladies who may have put a spell on him, the manic doctor and particularly, Russian singer Andrey Popov’s ferocious Police Inspector, who needs a bribe to return the errant nose to its rightful owner. Also Russian is conductor Pavel Smelkov who throws himself into the mayhem of the time.
Kentridge’s visual treat is an opera experience unlike any other, and South Africans should delight in seeing what had jaded New York opera goers cheering wildly.