The Nose - at the Metropolitan Opera
The Metropolitan Opera's performance of The Nose is exceptional.
The adaptation shifts fluidly between Gogol's nineteenth century Russia and Shostakovich's 20th century Soviet Union. Stage props and video like the Railroad of the USSR, proletarian clothing, marching demonstrators suggest the performance has been transposed to the early Stalinist period. By contrast, a man pulls Kovalev on a bicycle elsewhere while excerpts of video project a black nose-shaped mask over the head of a rider on horseback.
In contrast to the Met's production of Götterdämmerung, the producers have been far more successful at integrating video here. The clips often conjure up a demonic force at work behind the scenes, especially when the nose masks cover the head and upper body, marching across the screen to dissonant music or percussions. For the most part, the video shots are in black and white, doubling with the black and white newspaper clippings and text running across the set simultaneously or in other scenes.
These innovations embellish what is already an exceptional adaptation. Zamyatin and Shostakovich managed to shift Gogol's short story to the opera without the typical awkward transitions and unartistic reproduction of the original story (often due to an attempt to cram too much material into the confined amount of time allowed for the staging of an opera; similar to the problem movie adaptations have).
Some ideas are simply brilliant. While dialogue may be somewhat easier to place in the mouths of singers, narration is a particularly tricky issue in adaptation. The music, the set, the acting can reproduce some of it, but other parts required creativity. An outstanding example of this is the letter Kovalyov sends and the response he receives. These parts are sung by the woman who receives the letter and thus not only convey its content, but also create a role for sopranos. On occasion narration appears on stage, especially to introduce changes of scene, but music is also used to narrate: At the beginning, for instance, just before Kovalyov wakes up and realizes his nose is missing, the orchestra's pitch and percussions reach a near frenzy. Elsewhere, we read the narration in the set or action: for example, when Kovalyov meets his nose as a person in the cathedral, the tenor echoing Korsakov's astrologer in Zolotoy Petrushyok warbles from a ladder in the church's background – blurring the distinction between fantasy and reality.
But perhaps the boldest idea for narration is simply to leave it as just that. And so to start what is part 3 of the story and to conclude this same part, a man who appears in railroad scenes and does not correspond to any particular character in the original story becomes the narrator. The music stops. All motion comes to a standstill. And he quotes Gogol's narrator: "А все, однако же, как поразмыслишь, во всем этом, право, есть что-то. Кто что ни говори, а подобные происшествия бывают на свете, — редко, но бывают."