Seeking Shostakovich: I Am Not Me, The Nose Is Not Mine

In the teeming collage of text that forms a backdrop for the Metropolitan Opera’s 2010 production of The Nose are the words “spine,” smashed,” and “beautiful, pitiful age.” While in the thrall of the opera’s swirl of sound and image, I held tight to those words in hope of discovering where they came from and what they meant.

The opera, as amplified by the Met’s production, is super-abundant in associations, forming an extraordinary assemblage that encompasses music, literature, history, politics, and art. Its libretto is drawn from Nikolai Gogol’s short story, “The Nose,” in which Kovalyov, a petty bureaucrat, wakes up one morning to find his nose is missing. He spends the rest of the story chasing it down.

Gogol’s story, though, is not where The Nose’s journey starts. Gogol drew his inspiration from Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, in which noses play a prominent part: Tristram’s father is a connoisseur of noses; Tristram’s nose, as the result of Dr. Slop’s misapplied forceps, is flattened at birth. Sterne, for his part, drew inspiration from Cervantes’ Don Quixote, in which the Squire of the Mirrors’ monstrous nose turns out to be a fake. If we go back to the beginning, then, the whole journey from the nose to The Nose is centuries long.

Dmitri Shostakovich composed his opera The Nose in 1928. He was twenty-two, early in his composing career. The Met’s Program Note characterizes the opera as “a map holding the key to his future work.” The range of musical elements in the five hundred page score, with more than seventy singing roles, is vast.

One of the opera’s several orchestral interludes, scored for nine percussion instruments, “is considered one of the earliest examples of a percussion ensemble in Western music.” In another passage, an alto flute sounds mournful intervals as Kovalyov tries, without success, to reattach his nose. Singers and instruments are pushed to sing and play at the edge of their range. The score contains references to several dance forms, a choral prayer, and a folk-like song played on that most Russian of instruments, the balalaika.

The opera closes with Kovalyov, his nose finally reattached, strolling importantly along the Nevsky Prospekt. He is accompanied by his musical doppelgangers, the xylophone and cornet, and, in the closing bars, the odd soundings of a flexatone. Kovalyov’s voice rises to a yodel as he ogles a young woman, and the opera ends on a single thump of drum.

The opera appears to have been composed during a final flourishing of artistic freedom before Stalin’s fist came down. The opera was condemned soon after it opened, not to be performed again in Russia until 1974. Perhaps what we hear is Shostakovich at play, not yet in the dodge-and-weave he was forced to adopt for the remainder of his life.

Now add to this heady brew William Kentridge, a South African artist, white, Jewish, and the son of prominent anti-apartheid lawyers. Shostakovich had made clear that this was music to be seen as well as heard:  “The Nose loses all sense to me if it is viewed only from the musical standpoint . . . for its musical component is derived exclusively from the action.’’  Kentridge’s much-praised production fully complies.

Two examples, reported in the New York Times, are these:

During one percussion eruption audiences will see Shostakovich on screen hammering away at a piano. “It’s archival footage we’ve edited and adjusted for tempo,” Mr. Kentridge said. “And by the time we’re through, you believe it’s actually Shostakovich playing the music you’re hearing from the pit.”

About another passage, Kentridge said, “When Kovalev is onstage weeping at the loss of his nose, we see Anna Pavlova on screen, gently mocking him, dancing completely gorgeously.”  “With that,” the Times went on to report, Kentridge “planted a pince-nez on the bridge of his nose and conjured up a historic film clip of the ballerina on his iPhone, a mighty wedge of nose poised delicately on her swanlike neck.”

There is so much to hear, see, and understand in this production of The Nose, we must give thanks for the companion exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, “William Kentridge: Five Themes.” The last theme, “Learning from the Absurd,” is an exhibit of eight projections done in preparation for The Nose. In creating the projections, Kentridge searched Soviet film archives from the 1920s and 1930s.The projections are entitled “I am not me, the horse is not mine,” a Russian saying used to deny guilt.

Using the Soviet films, antique texts, paper cut-outs, and both still and animated projections, Kentridge has conceived and mounted a production of The Nose that gives us over to the world in which the music came to be, a world, as he puts it, “of the extraordinary brightness of film, image-making, of the visual and literary imagination that flourished in the decade after the 1917 revolution.”

Embedded in Kentridge’s celebratory vision, though, is forewarning of what will come, which brings us back to those mysterious words:

pitiful age

They are, as it turns out, from the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam’s “The Age,” written in 1923, the last stanza of which is this:

And the buds will swell again,
And the green shoots will sprout.
But your spine has been smashed,
My beautiful, pitiful age.
And you look back, cruel and weak,
With an inane smile,
Like a beast that has once been supple,
At the tracks left by your own paws.

Mandelstam was charged with counter-revolutionary activities and died in a Gulag transit camp in 1938.

Thus has Kentridge added to the layers of reference and allusion: “The Age” may have nothing to do with a literary nose, but it has everything to do with the place and time in which The Nose was composed.

Quotes not otherwise attributed are to the Met Opera, March 2010, Playbill.

So as to include it in the “Seeking Shostakovich” series here, I am reposting this 2010 post from another blog (now inactive) that I wrote shortly after seeing The Nose.

2 thoughts on “Seeking Shostakovich: I Am Not Me, The Nose Is Not Mine

  1. David Nice

    Love Kentridge’s work, wish we’d got this production in the UK. The Nose is hard just to listen to, it’s true – it’s pure music-theatre. BTW I have read Gogol’s story four times, but I never could cope with more than 100 pages of Tristram Shandy. My loss, no doubt.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: Love that Gogol story–and re Tristram Shandy, you got further than I did by several miles. I’ve long ago given up on the idea that I can–or need to–do it all!

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