Finding The Nose: Shostakovich in Rome

ItalyItaly Shostakovich, The Nose: Orchestra, Chorus and Ballet of Teatro dell’ Opera Rome / Alejo Pérez (conductor). Rome, 29.1.2013. (JB)

Platon Kuzmich Kovalyov, a college inspector –Paulo Szot
Ivan Yakovlevich, a barber –Alexander Teliga
A police inspector –Alexey Sulimov
Ivan, Kovalyov’s valet –Andrey Popov
The Nose –Leonid Bomstein
Pelagia Grigorievna Podtochina –Elena Zilio
Her daughter –Valentina Di Cola
Praskovya Ossipovna, the barber’s wife –Irina Alexeenko
A Bread Seller –Chiara Pieretti
An Assistant in a Newspaper Office –Aleey Yakimov

Production: from the Zurich Opera by Peter Stein
Sets, Ferdinand Wögerbauer
Costumes, Anna Maria Heinreich
Director of the Ballet, Micha van Hoecke
Choreography, Lia Tsolaki
Lighting, Joachim Bart
Chorus Master, Roberto Gabbiani

Jokes are a serious business in Russia, grim even, and designed more to provide lessons than laughter. When we do laugh, it’s by courtesy of the absurdity, for which, along with the French, the Russians have incomparable appetite. Gogol’s short story on which the twenty-one year old Shostakovich wrote his first opera, was written in 1835. The opera was a flop at its first showing in 1930 and it’s easy to guess why: the “lesson” was a little too near the bone for comfort of the Soviets of the day.

The Nose is altogether too good (in particular, too beautifully and perfectly crafted as a piece) to be dismissed as a protest opera, though it’s easy enough to see how, in some minds, it became so categorized.

Peter Stein, for one, makes no attempt to sidestep that standpoint. As everyone knows, Stein, who was born in 1937, grew up under an authoritarian father who was a dedicated Nazi. Almost all his stagings of prose works and operas are to a greater or lesser degree, a protest against this horrendous upbringing. The Nose is no exception. And it convinces by its sincerity and intelligence. Parts of the production are somewhat heavy-handed, but studiedly and unapologetically so. And yet –seizing opportunities offered by the libretto- there are also some unexpected light touches. Using the stage as though it is a paper sheet on which squares and rectangles open and close with the feel of a comics-book, lends a breezy air to the proceedings which chime well with Shostakovich’s artful falsity. The sets (Ferdinand Wögerbauer) and costumes (Anna Maria Heinreich) are given a deliberate one-dimensional feel with childlike exaggerated simplicity. But in all this, mockery is never far from the surface. To take any of it deeply below the surface would have been to destroy it, but Stein and his team are too well aware of the finesse of the score and so avoid that pitfall. Lia Tsolaki’s choreography provides much humour through its transparent, almost prim, neatness. The sets sometimes astonish and delight by their architectural daring.

The Argentinean conductor, Alejo Pérez, has youth and dedication on his side –both admirable assets for this witty music. He never misses a detail. And there are lots of these. That is one of the score’s defining characteristics. Members of the excellent orchestra said tey found it a pleasure to work with him. And that pleasure communicates itself to the audience. Of course, the orchestra had been augmented for this score, starting with three balalaika players and a percussion section increased to ten for that famous, well-written entr’acte between the second and third scenes of the first act. I wanted to write that the young Shostakovich had not yet developed his famous sense of theatricality, but episodes like this give a strong hint of genius at the apprentice stage.

Chorus Master, Roberto Gabbiani, delivered as well as he always does. There were some perfectly judged haunting chorus sounds in the church scene. And throughout, the chorus moved as poetically as the ballet: the choreographer’s requirements were simple but extremely demanding (“simple” is often the most difficult when it comes to movement.) All this made for a magical homogeneity of Stein’s intelligent production.

The Nose is an ensemble opera if ever there was one. Paolo Szot gave his all to the role of the protagonist, Platon Kuzmich Kovalyov. Even he, isn’t given anything which could properly be called an aria; his role is all declamatory in which the words are all-important. Praise to the Lord for the Italian surtitles! Much helped by Maestro Perez’s pacing, he sang every phrase with remarkable musicality.

The one arietta of the evening goes to Ivan, Kovalyov’s valet, well sung by Andrey Popov, accompanying himself (an orchestral player, of course) on the balalaika. The valet is “meditating” here on his master’s misfortune in losing his nose. And in mockery, Shostakovich hands him words from Dostoevsky’s Karamazov Brothers. Popov and Pérez showed excellent taste in underplaying the mockery: a case of less being more, which is always a winning trick in this composer’s hands.

The rest of the huge cast get little more than a cough and a sneeze apiece. However, I cannot resist singling out for praise, Elena Zilio who played the mother of the girl whom the protagonist might have married if only –in the protagonist’s miscalculation of things.- the old woman had not bewitched his nose in vengeance. Ms Zilio is far removed from the first flush of youth, but her stage presence remains impressive (I should say more than anyone else in the cast) and her vocal delivery is solid, perfectly in character and well defined.

Jack Buckley