completed The Nose, his first
opera, at the astonishing age of 22, just after his Second Symphony. It was
1928, the days of Eisenstein's October
and just before Dziga Vertov's Man With a
Movie Camera — in other words, the last years when experimentation
in the arts was openly encouraged as "revolutionary" by the government of the
The Nose has been championed in recent times especially by Valery Gergiev, who led a production of it at the Mariinsky (formerly Kirov) Opera and will conduct the Metropolitan Opera premiere in March 2010. Meanwhile, his reading of the score is available on a new 2-CD set from the Mariinsky's own label, in absolutely sensational sound.
Nikolai Gogol's short story "The Nose" (1835-36) is not exactly obvious material for a theatrical, let alone operatic, treatment. Westerners have often dwelt on the surrealistic aspects of this story of a man who wakes up one day to find his nose missing; his barber finds it in a loaf of bread, but later the owner spots it — now human-sized and dressed in a State Councillor's uniform — getting out of a carriage and going to church. The nose snubs its former owner, who then tries to put a "Wanted" ad in the newspaper and argues with a policeman, before it inexplicably reappears on the man's face. Freudians of course see castration anxiety, while most Russians and many others have always found the story a satire on bureaucratic types and vanity in general: the man who loses his nose is a "Collegiate Assessor" — "a civil servant of the eighth order" according to the story — who arrogantly bosses around not only his servant but just about everyone he encounters, when he is not flirting with women towards whom he has no honorable intentions.
Shostakovich's opera is in some ways a remarkably direct adaptation of the story, with most of the episodes and many of the exact lines retained. (The cast is huge, with a tenor singing the part of the Nose.) However, the capture of the Nose at a stagecoach stop, merely reported by a police officer in the story, is given full stage treatment in the opera, with a whole gallery of coach travelers individually characterized. There are minor differences too: the servant Ivan is found not lying on a couch spitting at the ceiling, as in the story, but playing a balalaika and singing a folksong. A pair of letters in the story become the occasion for a vocal quartet of writers and readers. Shostakovich and his librettists do intensify Kovalev the Assessor's moments of despair in a way that the story does not, though the opera's ending makes it quite clear that Kovalev has not really learned anything from his experience.
The score features an orchestration as dazzling as anything Shostakovich ever achieved. As one might expect in a work by this composer, especially with so many opportunities for grotesquerie, there are prominent parts for solo piccolo, bassoon, contrabassoon, trombone and xylophone, with Eb clarinet, trumpet and bass drum not far behind. (The orchestra is a reduced one of 30 players.) One interlude is entirely percussion — predating Edgard Varese's famous Ionization for percussion orchestra by a couple of years. Startling contrasts abound, as when a breathtakingly frantic galop interlude leads abruptly to the wordless chorus that opens the cathedral scene. Instrumental novelties include the flexaphone, which sounds a little like a musical saw.
I haven't heard the recently re-issued 1970s Rozhdestvensky
recording of the Bolshoi production, but can say that the Mariinsky recording is
superlative. The one major singing role, that of Kovalev, is admirably performed
by baritone Vladislav Sulimsky, a Eugene Onegin, Gianni Schicchi and Sharpless
at the Mariinsky. But ten other parts are luxuriously cast with stars of the
company. I was especially impressed by Andrei Popov in the high-tenor role of
the District Constable (he also sings Wagner's Mime, if that tells you
something) and by the lovely voice of Zhanna Dombrovskaya (a Lucia and Gilda) in
the brief part of a potential fiancée for Kovalev, but really, any of them
could be singled out. The Mariinsky Orchestra, well known to the West as Gergiev's
The Nose is the first release on the Mariinsky's own label, followed recently by two more Gergiev CDs, one of Shostakovich's 1st and 15th Symphonies and the other of Tchaikovsky's "occasional" pieces, most famously the 1812 Overture with chorus. For clarity, stereo separation, depth and overall realism the sound is as thrilling as the performances. (I heard the Surround Sound discs only in stereo.) A booklet provides a fascinating essay by Leonid Gakkel, the libretto in Russian and English plus a transliteration/pronunciation guide for the Cyrillic lettering, detailed biographies of the singers, and a couple of color photos of the Mariinsky production of The Nose. In short, this is a first-class production in every way.