Monday, March 15, 2010


A guest post on the premiere of the William Kentridge production from reader&commenter Straussmonster follows below. My long write-up of yesterday's Met Council Finals will be posted later today.

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It was a packed house for the Metropolitan Opera Premiere of "The Nose", and a great buzz throughout the house. Listening in to conversations, a lot of people there were primarily Kentridge/art fans, so they didn't really know what they were getting into, musically...

And, well, Nose is not the easiest musical thing on earth. Much of the music is practically atonal, and on the spiky side even for Shostakovich, lacking the expansive lyricism that would later surface in Lady Macbeth, especially in the grim fourth act of that piece. Nevertheless, the fundamentals of his better-known works are all present: the tendency to pair very high and very low instruments, prominent lines for solo wind instruments, the love of the jaunty and tonally somewhat off-kilter, the world as seen through a cracked mirror. Tons of percussion, especially tuned--there's even an interlude entirely for percussion, which only Ligeti would later one-up with the opening toccata for car horns in Le Grand Macabre.

The production, accordingly, is a perfect match of director to material. It looks like an experimental Soviet film brought to life on the Met stage. The work is given without intermission (only a short break for retuning before the third act), and the set is fluid so no pauses need to be taken between the many scenes of the opera. The dominant theme is newsprint in both Russian and English. Projections done in the style of old Newscasts of the World (scrolling over the globe) describe changes of locale. Some of the action is a little obscure if you don't know the plot, but the outlines are always easy to follow. The musical side of things had a few bumps on opening night, but the orchestra (as always) sounds great and plays the score with both verve and swagger. Szot is great in the title role, only showing a few audibility problems in the cathedral scene--but he's very funny in all of the different moods required from Kovalyov, which matters more in this kind of piece. Other top vocal honors go to Andrei Popov in the Astrologer-high role of the Police Inspector, and always a pleasure to see Vladimir Ognovenko back, playing the hapless barber and other roles. Costumes are a mix of straightforward, slightly surreal, and really surreal, but all contribute to this late 1920s vibe, which works well for the piece (technically set in 1830). I wish I read Russian, because many of the costumes are also festooned with writing, making the characters into extensions of the same aesthetic of the sets. The skill with projections and video is top-notch, and the flexibility that they can add to a staging is really superb.

Opening night the production team received huge acclaim at the curtain call, and all of them were there--Kentridge took a solo bow, got cheered for, and then everyone else came out and got cheered loudly as well. The opera is a bit of a curate's egg, but I can't imagine a more fun and thoughtful production of this piece. A real pity it's not being HD broadcast to delight and confuse out in the hinterlands.


  1. Didn't see opening night but went Thursday evening (3/11). Showed up without a ticket, but managed to pick up front row director box seat outside. Paid face but was well worth it. Quick thoughts:
    1) The ultimate special effect would be to actually remove Kovalyov's nose from his face. That's probably asking too much of the singer, but perhaps could be done on a DVD release via CGI (a la Lucas' Star Wars re-writes).
    2) On way out heard a dismissive "kitsch" from Euro-type. Not really, unless applicable to anything fun to watch. Generally agree with review that the production is a good match for the opera. (One side effect: the freneticism of both music and production make this an exhausting 2 hours.) Though more general concern as to growing preeminence of the producer...
    3) Had same feeling about Szot, though thought that had audibility issues in a few other scenes as well, and this even from a box right on top of the stage. But overall very good.
    4) Huge body of percussionists; wow. Had a great view from my box.
    5) Show started at least 10 minutes late, guess for the obvious reason.

  2. I wondered why they didn't, say, paint Szot's nose gray.

    That said, Straussmonster's comparison to Ligeti is dead on—an absurd overabundance of formal technique, piled up in heaps of dissonance, to illustrate comic futility—to the extent that I begin to wonder if GL had NOSE in mind.

  3. It bothered me that a nose was prominently seen on his face. Why couldn't they just have painted a red X on his nose like they did in the ads?


Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.