Thursday, March 5, 2009

Post-mortem: Sniffing at The Nose

Shostakovich himself filmed during rehearsals for a 1975 production of The Nose, which was banned in Russia for decades after its premiere.

I caught the Opera Boston production of Shostakovich's rarely-seen The Nose in its last performance because, like so many other people, I was curious about it. I knew better than to trust the raves in the local press; you go to Opera Boston simply to hear the work in question - often either brand new, or fascinating but obscure - rather than to revel in a brilliant production of it. Indeed, the company presents a critic with a curious quandary. Seemingly in direct contradiction of conventional wisdom, music director Gil Rose has carved a popular niche for the troupe via adventurous (rather than conservative) programming, coupled with a hip, this-is-not-your-father's-opera-company vibe. Still, the productions usually slightly disappoint. And the critics tend to pretend otherwise - because, of course, they like seeing and hearing all these rarities, and yes, they also like pretending opera is hip and popular among people under 40.

Still, there are the productions themselves to consider. The Nose was a case in point. Shostakovich's first opera (and next to last, due to official censure) is, indeed, if not quite the masterpiece Opera Boston claimed, then definitely one of the most brilliant maiden operatic voyages in history. But it's also a daunting challenge in many, many respects; the cast is huge, the libretto - about a nose that goes rogue, and finds a prominent post in the bureaucracy - is wildly surreal, and the singing and instrumental requirements unforgiving (almost everyone sings slightly out of their range - the blackly satiric idea is that everybody is in over his or her head - and the orchestra, too, is constantly being asked to scrape either the top or bottom of their instruments' ranges).

And Opera Boston could only intermittently meet these challenges. Its likeable lead, Stephen Salters (at left), sang with warmth and power (which perhaps was actually not quite right for the role), but was, in the end, dramatically merely adequate. There was one brilliant acting turn from Frank Kelley, who played with hilarious aplomb a shrieking police inspector who wound up being led around on a leash - but Kelley was only just up to the leaps into falsetto territory required of him. There were also appealing cameos from the booming Vladimir Matorin as the barber who may or may not have separated our hero from his schnozz, and Yeghishe Manucharyan as the bizarre lackey who imagines he's a troubadour.

But much of the rest of the production felt slightly lackluster. The composer and librettists, taking off from a short story by Gogol, had sketched a brutally madcap romp across society - think Kafka crossed with Tom and Jerry - but director Julia Pevzner and designer Alexander Lisiyansky instead supplied a series of post-surrealist, classically-restrained tableaux (the production in the YouTube above looks much closer to the right idea). There were a few striking moments - a flapping, Czarist eagle was a nice touch, and that police inspector on a leash was brilliant - but the piece generally felt sedately paced (it never got close to madcap), and its weird sexual undercurrents had largely gone missing (despite some seductive moves from Sol Kim Bentley as a pretzel-selling hottie). And down in the pit, Rose - a solid, but not inspired, conductor - had trouble keeping up with the dark energy of the score (he was much better at its eerily menacing slow passages).

As a result, the audience I saw it with grew noticeably restive and bored - but everyone chatted it up positively afterward. After all, nobody wants Opera Boston to fail - we all want to keep getting the chance to hear these rarities! So what's a critic to do?

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