Nose in the Air

While Broadway slowly ramps up to its autumn onslaught, theater fans in the mood for something different might want to head to Lincoln Center, where the Metropolitan Opera is bringing back its 2010 hit, The Nose. Yes, there’s actually an opera by that name, and it’s about a petty bureaucrat who awakens one morning to find that his schnozz has gone AWOL. When he finally tracks his honker down, he discovers his disembodied nose has reached a higher social level than he ever did. The original 1836 Nikolai Gogol short story prefigured the genre of magical realism because of its introduction of supernatural elements—in this case, a comically ridiculous one—into an otherwise naturalistic framework. Ninety-three years later, Dmitri Shostakovich turned the tale into a modernist opera. Although it’s easy to assume satirizing the bourgeois middle class would have been welcomed in post-revolutionary Russia, critics actually dismissed The Nose’s 1929 premiere, probably because the avant-garde sound of the music came as a shock. (In fairness, the piece was debuted in concert form rather than as a fully staged opera, which many say blew The Nose’s chances). Also, the sometimes wild and atonal score was not exactly readily accessible, which went against the grain of what the increasingly totalitarian government expected of popular art.

As such, it would take until 1974 before Russia saw another staging of the piece, and it wasn’t until three years ago that the Met chose The Nose for production. South African-born filmmaker William Kentridge, who staged the premiere, noted in a 2010 video interview that The Nose mocks “the terrors of hierarchy” but also questions, “what constitutes a person? How singular are we, and how much are we divided up against ourselves?” To demonstrate that duality, Kentridge’s staging weaves the live performers in and out of huge projections so that things that seem solid are actually evanescent. The New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini lauded the production and called the director “a major visual artist” who creates “captivating animated images.”

Lead actor Paulo Szot is known to Broadway audiences from his Tony-winning turn as Emile in Lincoln Center’s superb 2008 revival of South Pacific. Having seen him in South Pacific, I recall Szot’s unforced chemistry with co-star Kelli O’Hara. Both Szot and conductor Valery Gergiev will return for this revival of Kentridge’s production of The Nose.

The Nose runs seven performances between September 28 and October 26.

Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera