Via Gaetano Sacchi, Roma, January 29, 2013—
THAT TITLE IS NOT Latin for "this" (or "that"), it is Russian for "nose." The three letters floated frequently in front of the stage tonight, at Rome Opera's production of Dmitri Shostakovich's first opera, performed here as Il Naso. Shostakovich composed it in 1927 and 1928, to a libretto based pretty straightforwardly on the Nicolai Gogol story
(1835) about a man whose nose leaves him — or perhaps a nose who leaves a man. Gogol's story is pure fantasy, and reminds me of fables by E.T.A. Hoffmann; the librettists of the opera have pushed the fantasy further in the direction of political satire.
Shostakovich's score is said to be influenced by Alban Berg's Wozzeck (1925), and I could hear that tonight in the writing for male chorus, in the contrapuntal devices, and occasionally in solo vocal writing. But the music is strident and busy, the orchestra almost wilfully eccentric. The large percussion section rarely lets up; xylophone, piccolo, and brass frequently assault the ear; and the orchestration goes everywhere — this must be the only opera whose orchestra includes two balalaikas and a flexotone.
Peter Stein's production leans heavily on clichés of Modernist slapstick, often suggesting silent cinema: a man descends from the flies in an elaborate useless machine composed of gears and tread-wheel, and you think of Charlie Chaplin and Modern Times; Keystone Kops chase hapless fugitives and one another; two men in a horse suit show up once or twice more often than really necessary. But the result is fun, if silly, and fills the time — better, in my opinion, than does Shostakovich's score, which too often seems to be turning the crank.
The cast was huge and I lack a program; I'll only mention the lead, who has an enormous role: Paulo Szot put it across very well indeed. Alejo Pérez conducted with all the energy needed, and managed a Russian style in the broader, more lyrical sections, welcome when they arrive. The chorus and comprimarii were effective, and the supporting cast: as you see in the photo, of the final curtain call, this was an enormous cast, easily sixty or seventy people often crowding the stage, and all directed very well.
The question remains, though, whether the opera's worth doing. It's a sad point to raise: Shostakovich is a central composer of his century, and all his music should be known by anyone interested in serious music. To my mind his work is flawed, like Aaron Copland's and Benjamin Britten's, by his felt need to be both modern and nationalistic; stylistics too often seem to be applied to his work, rather than his work evolving a persuasive individual style. But his is a special case, and familiarity with his work must involve awareness of the tragic ironies of his life, time, and place — and not many of his scores so directly confront, even define, these ironies as The Nose.
So, expensive though the tickets were; difficult as it was to balance the Russian text with the Italian supertitles (and particularly from a box far to the side of the house); strident as I found the score; I'm glad to have heard this performance. Particularly, I might add, a couple of weeks after seeing Einstein on the Beach again, for, odd as it may seem, the two events have certain things in common. I much prefer Einstein, partly because it's a more serious work of art. But art, like all of life, profits from slapstick and sarcasm as well as from seriousness. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, and Hoc is never dull.