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The Nose at the Met

Dmitri Shostakovich’s first opera, The Nose, is a satirical tale of a St. Petersburg official who wakes up without a nose—just a flat shiny patch on his face where his nose used to reside. Written when he was 22 years old, this is the first time I’ve seen this opera. The Nose rarely gets performed. This was a recording of its Metropolitan Opera premiere.

The opera is based on a short story of the same name, written by Nikolai Gogal between 1835 and 1836. It satires society’s obsession with status and class, among other things. The music is a mish-mash of styles including atonal, folk, popular music from the time, and unusual stuff, like laugh singing. I don’t quite know how to describe it, but the British composer Gerard McBurney provides this apt description:

"The Nose is one of the young Shostakovich’s greatest masterpieces, an electrifying tour de force of vocal acrobatics, wild instrumental colours and theatrical absurdity, all shot through with a blistering mixture of laughter and rage... The result, in Shostakovich's ruthlessly irreverent hands, is like an operatic version of Charlie Chaplin or Monty Python... despite its magnificently absurd subject and virtuosic music, The Nose is a perfectly practical work and provides a hugely entertaining evening in the theatre."

How did the nose go missing in the first place? It’s unclear. Although the barber was suspect, our main character reasons that if the barber whacked it off, there would be a bloody patch, not a shiny one. He thinks perhaps witchcraft is the culprit, initiated by a woman whose daughter she wants to marry to him. We never know. How the nose started its independence in a loaf of bread baked by the barber’s wife also remains a mystery. (Image from the Met production. Kovalyov, performed by Paulo Scot, discovers his nose is missing. If you see his nose, use your imagination to blank it out, as it is difficult to cover a singer's nose and expect them to sing.)

The Nose has the ability to get bigger, walk around like a human, and even ride a horse. It goes to church, it gets a civil commission of a rank higher up than its owner. Eventually the nose gets beaten back down to size and returned to its owner. However, the nose won’t stick in place no matter what its owner does. One day it miraculously appears back on his face. (The Nose kneels to pray.)

The chorus and staging is intricate and magnificent. Projections are used throughout the opera to great effect and complement the stage action perfectly. The opera is 2 hours with no intermission. If you are looking for a great piece of absurd theater and spectacular singing, check it out on the Met Opera On Demand.

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