Black Comedy Tonight

Shostakovich's The Nose, which arrives at the Met for the first time this month, has plenty of wit - but the laughs may leave you unsettled and unnerved. LAUREL E. FAY considers the work's unique musical makeup.

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Shostakovich (far left) in 1929, with his collaborators on The Bedbug, for which he supplied incidental music: playwright and poet Vladimir Mayakovsky (standing, center), director Meyerhold (seated, center) and designer Alexander Rodchenko (right)
© Lebrecht/The Image Works 2010
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Composer Shostakovich
© The Bridgeman Art Library 2010
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Director Meyerhold whose production of Gogol's Inspector General inspired Shostakovich
© culture-images/Lebrecht 2010
One little-known fact about Dmitri Shostakovich is that he was a roller-coaster enthusiast. At the point when he was launching his musical career in Leningrad in the late 1920s, he was not just the occasional patron but a roller-coaster fanatic, a daredevil who looked for ways to intensify the thrill of the ride by standing up in the moving car, for example, or by calmly reading aloud from the newspaper to his white-knuckled, screaming companions. Relishing extreme sensations, fearless and something of an exhibitionist, this was the Shostakovich who, at the age of twenty, set his sights on revolutionizing the music-theater world by undertaking the composition of his first opera, The Nose.

Some reacted to his choice of subject with incredulity. Nikolai Gogol's classic short story might not have seemed an obvious candidate for operatic treatment: it concerns a certain Major Kovalyov, a minor civil servant in mid-nineteenth-century St. Petersburg, whose nose inexplicably vanishes from his face one morning (it is discovered by his barber in a freshly baked loaf of bread) and turns into a personage of loftier rank than its "owner," who then gads about the city scandalizing the residents before being captured and, equally inexplicably, restored to its original size and station. The fact that the young composer, as yet, had no practical experience in opera or music theater and very little in writing for voices might also have seemed an impediment to such an ambitious enterprise. But Shostakovich was utterly confident of his abilities. And, at this early stage of his career, he had an appetite for risk.

A recent graduate of the Leningrad Conservatory, Shostakovich was in the process of repudiating his fusty academic studies and hanging out his shingle as a cutting-edge modernist. He was thoroughly disgusted with the current state of the opera theater too; the only opera staging he could commend highly was Berg's Wozzeck, which he saw at its Leningrad premiere in 1927. The most encouraging model he found was not an opera, however, but Vsevolod Meyerhold's path-breaking and controversial 1926 production of Gogol's play The Inspector General, a dramatic staging distinguished by the prominent role music played in it and, above all, by its emphasis on the grotesque.

Gogol's wit was a natural fit for Shostakovich, whose sense of humor always inclined toward the ironic. Told by its narrator in a serious, matter-of-fact manner, Gogol's story - on the surface a satire of the period of Nicholas I - blurs the boundaries between the real and the surreal. Its logic is the peculiar logic of dreams, where the rational and the fantastical may plausibly coexist. Opera would seem to be an ideal medium to translate this kind of ambiguity into dramatic form. At the very least, the corporealization of a nose onstage, not to mention a singing "Nose" garbed in the uniform of a State Councilor, was the kind of challenge Shostakovich found irresistible.

Pursuing fidelity to Gogol's original, one of the objectives Shostakovich set himself was to musicalize the natural rhythms and inflections of his language. In the libretto of ten scenes divided into three acts, Shostakovich and his co-librettists (Georgy Ionin, Alexander Preys and Yevgeny Zamyatin) retained much of Gogol's original dialogue, fleshing out scenes when necessary with discourse from other works by the author. In the only conspicuous departure from Gogolian texts, they turned to Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov for the text of the little ditty ("An invisible force ties me to my beloved") sung in Act II, scene 6, by Kovalyov's servant Ivan to an accompaniment of strumming balalaikas. The composer also conceived The Nose as a "theatrical symphony." Within each act, the music flows in a continuous symphonic current; the scenes are linked together by lengthy instrumental entr'actes, some with directions for pantomimed action.

<I>Nose</i> Poster
Poster for the premiere of The Nose at the Maly Theater,

© Lebrecht Music & Arts 2010
But Shostakovich must have had his tongue in his cheek when he swore, as he did, that he made no attempt to amplify Gogol's deadpan humor by musical means. From the opening orchestral "sneeze" to Kovalyov's grunts and groans as he wakes up just before discovering his loss (Act I, scene 3) to a profusion of precisely notated sobs, sniffs, shrieks, pinches, titters, guffaws and the like, the score teems with graphic naturalistic effects. Even where the vocal writing closely follows the natural contours of the text, the orchestral accompaniment not infrequently places a wackier spin on how we hear it.

Much of the wit in Shostakovich's score derives from the juxtaposition of extremes - from exaggeration and grotesque distortion. When we first see Major Kovalyov in his bedroom in Act I, his waking is accompanied by the burping low notes of a contrabassoon, the woozy slides of a trombone and the high-pitched squeaks of a solo violin, later joined by harp and xylophone. Strong contrasts such as these in sonority, range and articulation are invariably favored over homogeneity in both the vocal and instrumental writing. Similarly, craggy melodic lines, unpredictable leaps and pointillistic exchanges are common. Lyricism appears in the guise of parody. In Act III, scene 8, the music for the fortune-telling by Madame Podtochina's daughter (Kovalyov's ostensible love interest) skewers the banal pretensions of the Russian urban romance with its rippling arpeggios, chord changes that are off-kilter and overblown emotional interjections.

Surprises are everywhere. In scene 2, after the barber has discovered the unwanted nose in his morning bread and been shooed out by his domineering wife, he runs along the embankment of the Neva trying to dispose of it inconspicuously. Over a pounding beat, an obsessive melodic idea is taken up by one instrument after another in a steady escalation of pandemonium and dissonance. At the climax, just as the barber finally throws the nose into the river, a Police Inspector accosts him. At this instant, a sonority in which all twelve chromatic pitches have accumulated erupts, with a brass fanfare, into a blindingly consonant C-major chord, played by rapidly strumming domras, glockenspiel and piano. No less startling is the sound of the Inspector's voice: his accusations are delivered in a high tenor falsetto that crescendos upward into the stratosphere. (Police - corrupt, shiftless, inept - are a reliable target of Shostakovich's satire. In Act III, scene 7, this same Inspector commands a corps of bumbling officers charged with capturing the Nose. In Shostakovich's second opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, they are resurrected as bribe-taking "Keystone Kop" surrogates.)

Domras, balalaikas, an outsize percussion section (the latter featured in a starring role in an entr'acte for nine unpitched percussion instruments): these are not the constituents of your typical opera orchestra. Subverting operatic conventions - and operagoers' expectations - the young composer elevated the musical lowbrow. With galops, quick waltzes, march rhythms, with brass flourishes, shrill whistles, bass drum wallops and equivalent zingers, Shostakovich injected The Nose with the roisterous atmosphere of the music hall and circus. Unsurprisingly, while he despised the traditional operatic spectacles of his day, he adored the artistry and pageantry of the circus. That he had worked accompanying silent movies, too, and appreciated the efficacy of incorporating cinematic techniques into the live experience of music theater is evident from the abrupt cuts and splices, emotional "cues" and vamping patterns that abound in the opera.

Author Gogol
© Lebrecht Authors/Lebrecht Music & Arts 2010
The Nose is neither plot-driven nor linear. This afforded Shostakovich opportunities to show off his talents and ingenuity in more esoteric ways as well. Such, for instance, is the ending of Act II, scene 5, after Kovalyov has been unsuccessful in persuading a newspaper clerk to accept an advertisement for the return of his nose. Here Shostakovich set the texts of eight ads taken directly from Gogol's story that are proffered by porters ("Coachman of sober habits available for hire," "Well-built carriage missing one spring," "Young, fiery horse, seventeen years old," etc.) as an elaborate, dissonant double canon for eight basses with irregular, sometimes inverted entries at half-step intervals, employing a single rhythmic value reinforced by the steady beat of a bass drum. The disintegration of the words into a syllabic staccato, with more rests than notes, produces a hocket effect. The ability of the listener to parse the sung texts, let alone to understand their meaning, is sacrificed in service of a musical tour de force.

And yet, all is not mere exuberance, slapstick and showmanship. As ludicrous as his predicament is, to Kovalyov it is agonizingly real and tragic. In Act I, a bouncy circus-style galop runs headlong into the final scene, which takes place in Kazan Cathedral. The mood shifts abruptly. Mellifluous choral singing, through which a lovely solo soprano voice weaves, evokes the solemn, consecrated atmosphere of the setting. It is against this aural backdrop that the nose-less Kovalyov - and the audience with him - first encounters and recognizes his own transformed appendage. His confusion over how to approach and address this "Nose," his flustered attempt to engage "him" in conversation, greeted initially with misunderstanding and then with contempt, unfolds over mounting dissonance and sinister undercurrents in the orchestra, but without obvious musical clowning. Only as the momentarily distracted Kovalyov realizes that his "Nose" has escaped does the antic pace resume, propelling us to the end of the act.

Actor Igor Ilyinsky (1901-87) as
Khlestakov in Meyerhold's 1926
production of The Inspector General

© RIA Novosti/Lebrecht Music & Arts 2010
Shostakovich's humor is not innocent or benign. It reveals a dark, edgy quality. In Act III, scene 7, for instance - a scene that is expanded significantly from a brief, passing reference in Gogol's story - when the renegade "Nose" is finally captured just as it is about to board a coach leaving town, the crowd of bystanders, including men, women and children, surround and beat it with unalloyed gusto - thirty-eight identical lashes of "take that!" In a show of sadistic excess, an Old Countess who moments earlier had proclaimed herself on the verge of death finds a new lease on life and continues to thrash away after everyone else has stopped. Even in a context that is deliberately dehumanized, one squirms in discomfort while laughing at this manifestation of spontaneous mob violence.

In the end, after Kovalyov has first endured the humiliation and torments of recovering his nose, then of being unable to reattach it, he jumps out of bed one day elated to find it back in its accustomed place. In the final scene, he resumes his life almost as if nothing had happened, promenading along Nevsky Prospect exchanging pleasantries with passing acquaintances and flirting with a sales girl. The fog of incongruity has lifted, without explanation. The opera ends with an inspired touch of whimsy, with the wobbly, tinny sound of a flexatone, a percussion instrument that had only recently been invented when Shostakovich wrote The Nose. It supplies the appropriately eccentric denouement to this offbeat opera.

Completed in 1928, The Nose received its stage premiere in 1930, at a time when proletarian critics had reached the peak of their influence in Soviet culture. These critics predictably denounced Shostakovich's opera as the "childish sickness of leftism." The consequences, however, were not career-threatening. Others were more appreciative of Shostakovich's razor-sharp wit and innate flair for the theater. And while he never again wrote anything quite so aggressively modern, the propensity for the grotesque never left him.

In the wake of The Nose, Shostakovich was besieged with commissions. One opera he signed a contract to compose was about a handsome young carp who falls for a "marvelous madame" (a smelt) and, upon being dumped by her, throws himself into a fishing net and ends up in a frying pan dusted in flour and salt. Another, this one a commission from the venerable Bolshoi Theater, was an opera buffa ("political pamphlet") about a hybrid creature conceived in a scientific experiment from a monkey impregnated with human cells who becomes a wealthy and powerful newspaper magnate before going mad, reverting to the condition of an ape and being sold by his wife to a circus. (The Carp never got off the ground, but fragments of the latter unfinished opera, titled Orango, have recently been discovered and are being readied for performance.)

In 1933, The Nose was on track for a revival. Stalin's public condemnation in 1936 of Shostakovich's only other completed opera, the critically acclaimed and hugely successful "tragedy-satire" Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, resulted in the disappearance of both his operas from the repertory for decades. Before he reached the age of thirty, all the reckless daring, high spirits and whimsy were crushed out of the composer. Having learned what fear was, Shostakovich prudently sat down in the roller coaster that was Stalin's Russia and hung on for dear life.

LAUREL E. FAY is the author of Shostakovich: A Life (Oxford University Press, 2000).

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