Concert, DVD, Film & Theatre Reviews 35

35_Rozhdestvensky /
35_Gergiev /

The Nose, opus 15
Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, Soloists, chorus and orchestra of the Moscow Chamber Opera. Platon Kovalev (Eduard Akimov); The Nose (Alexander Lomonosov); Ivan Yakovlevich (Valery Belykh); Praskovia Osipovna (Nina Sasulova); Policeman (Boris Tarkhov); Ivan (Boris Druzhinin); Doctor (Ashot Sarkisov).
Filmed at the Moscow Chamber Opera in 1979.
All-region NTSC DVD. VAI 4517.
TT: 95 minutes plus 7 minutes special features

Valery Gergiev, Mariinsky Soloists, chorus and orchestra. Platon Kovalev (Vladislav Sulimsky); Ivan Yakovlevich (Alexei Tanovitski); Praskovia Osipovna (Tatiana Kravtsova); A district constable (Andrei Popov); The Nose (Sergei Semishkur); Doctor (Gennadi Bezzubenkov); A clerk in a newspaper office (Vadim Kravets); Ivan (Sergei Skorokhodov); Yaryzhkin (Yevgeny Strashko); Pelagaya Podtochina (Elena Vitman); Pelagaya Podtochina’s daughter (Zhanna Dombrovskaya)
TT: 110’20”
Recorded in the Mariinsky Concert Hall, St Petersburg. 15–23 July 2008.

Classic productions, in particular of operas are, well, classic. But they bring with them the problem of legacy: when an opera house gets a ‘winner’, they – and their audience – can be loth to lose it. I’ve been to more than one “last ever revival” that returned “by public demand”. And that’s not even to start to address the artistic issue of how these productions sit, toad-like, excluding others. And while a classic Carmen won’t be the only show in town, rarer works can become inextricably linked to a single vision.

And yet, and yet… There are some that are simply so crucial that losing them is almost inconceivable. One of these must surely be the Moscow Chamber Theatre’s 1974 revival of The Nose: a production with which Shostakovich was closely involved and which he endorsed. The MCO theatre itself is tiny (as the DVD reveals) – just over 200 seats. But the company has toured the production extensively, developing a number of alterations to suit larger venues.

In 1975 Rozhdestvensky made his audio recording (though others had already laid down the suite) and, through an EMI LP, that became how it was best known in the West. More Russians saw it when, in 1979, Yuri Bogatirenko filmed it for TV. Then a 1991 performance under Vladimir Agronsky was filmed and released on a Japanese laser disc (EMI TOWL 3747-8) in 1995, though it is yet to resurface on DVD. Belyankin’s film The Composer Shostakovich (1975) includes footage of rehearsals and a performance with Shostakovich in attendance, footage which appears in various documentaries and on YouTube.

Though separated by four years, Bogatirenko and Rozhdestvensky have identical major cast members, indeed many of the singers continued in their roles for many years. The timings of some of the scenes are uncannily similar, an astonishing feat of consistency, so anyone who knows the CD will have a good idea of how the DVD goes. Of course that doesn’t make the DVD redundant! Though the vocal acting is superb, the visuals reinforce it. When Ivan Yakovlevich decides to miss out on his regular morning coffee we understand all the pros and cons that are going through his head and which Gogol carefully explains, even before he sings a few of them.

The film opens with shots of Shostakovich at the rehearsal and the actors preparing for the performance. Then a brief shot from the back of the theatre brings us into the auditorium before we close in on the stage action. The first two acts run continuously, which is sensible given that the action is continuous. It is almost as if Shostakovich’s division of the two acts is a jokey artificiality. Act 3, like the first half of the show, starts with Shostakovich looking on.

The backdrop is a silhouetted queue of Petersburgers who watch and judge Kovalev and the others (it was reproduced in the booklet of the EMI LP). Watching and judging are recurrent themes in the opera: throughout the three-line Prologue, Kovalev gazes into a mirror autoscopophiliacally (perhaps even in a sense that Freud would have understood: after all, the doctor does ask Kovalev if anything else is missing). When Ivan Yakovlevich finds the nose in the roll, he and his wife barely look at each other as their eyes are locked on the offending item and later, the police officer obsesses about his eyesight. Spectacles seem not to help anyone: the policeman and the old woman both wear sunglasses, paradoxically helping them see but making them look blind, and take them off at crucial moments. During the percussion interlude he removes them, the better to see, and struts and air-punches his way around the stage before staring intimidatingly into the audience; when the nose is beaten back into its original form the old woman takes hers off to look at it. Perhaps most interestingly, the newspaper clerk wears a frock coat in keeping with the period production, but his thick-rimmed spectacles and open-necked shirt give him a more modern look.

It would be easy to pack the MCO stage with the opera’s seventy-odd characters, but much of the time, it is quite sparsely populated. As Ivan tries to ‘lose’ the nose he scurries around the stage, hiding under his mean blanket while, audience-like, people line the wings and comment on his efforts. The stage space is extended by actors staring pointedly into the audience and by bringing through them the screen behind which Yakovlev will make his grotesquely toiletting noises. One of the few full stages comes with the climactic scene, complete with New Babylonian parasolomania.

The nose itself (has any opera’s titular character spent less time on stage?) makes its stately entrance into Kazan Cathedral while a bandaged Kovalev looks on. Some productions go for the full nasal, but here the actor, wearing his State Councillor’s uniform high-collared to hide his cheeks and brushing his hair forward to hide the top of his face, has something more Cyrano-ish poking out. Again, showing how this is not a production preserved in aspic, some incarnations have a far more prominent proboscis. Meanwhile, Kovalev’s noselessness is signified by a blob of black make-up (the wonderfully uncanny ocarina-like sound that accompanies his efforts to stick it back on is even more pronounced here than on Rozhdestvensky’s recording).

The film’s value is precisely in its refusal to “rethink” the production: it is a straightforward record, and there are very few ‘cinematic’ moments: Bogatirenko doesn’t fight shy of showing the sideline actors handing props into the stage, almost as Formalist revelations of process. However, the framing of the letter scene hides some things happening in the background and remove some of the alternating ‘freeze-frames’ à la The Government Inspector (there’s another very clear one at the very end). One moment does jar: a very cinematic zoom backwards to a deep focus shot with the doctor in the foreground and Kovalev in the distance. There are further reminders that this is a performance, with occasional shots of the score on Rozhdestvensky’s stand.

The presentation of the DVD is very good, though the documentation is minimal: a single page listing the cast and chaptering – and it claims that the opera is 134 minutes long, rather than the actual 95. Each scene and interlude is a separate chapter so navigation is easy, though there aren’t any thumbnails. There are English, French, Italian, Russian and Spanish subtitles in yellow or the option to watch with none. The English subtitles are in an idiomatic American: things are “gotten” and Kovalev is urged to “write her”.

Ironically, the film’s vintage has worked to its visual advantage. It was shot on film and so looks very nice and the transfer to DVD has been well done. There isn’t any combing in fast moving passages and the colours are strong. The tonal range is quite good, so that shadow details are retained.

There are a couple of extras. In a four and a half minute interview, Pokrovsky talks about the work’s centrality both to the MCO (though it was its seventh production) and to modern opera productions, comparing it in importance to The Seagull at the Moscow Arts Theatre. There is also a clip of a couple of minutes of the footage of Shostakovich at the rehearsals. It’s fascinating to hear him discuss the work, the production and the performance with Rozhdestvensky and Pokrovsky, and to see every nuance of the music streak through his body, so it’s a shame that not all of that footage could not have been included.

So, even those who already own Rozhdestvensky’s recording should consider adding this to their collections.

There could hardly be a greater contrast with the Mariinsky’s 2004 Nose, directed by Yuri Alexandrov and conducted by Gergiev. Where the MCO theatre is a tiny and has virtually no machinery, the Mariinsky has a huge stage to fill and advanced technology to achieve it. Hence it was dominated by a massive mobile construction, while projected film clips and other effects threaten to overwhelm the music.

In 2008, after performances both at the Mariinsky and on tour, Gergiev recorded only the third complete traversal of the opera after Rozhdestvensky and a 2001 version from Armin Jordan (Cascavelle RSR 6183), which flew in an out of the catalogue almost before anyone knew.

Gergiev has something of a reputation for inconsistency, equally able to produce performances and recordings so wild that they just about cling on, as well as ones so controlled as to sound like an exploded diagram of the score. The Nose sits somewhere between the two. There’s an almost Webernian clarity, each change of colour meticulously logged. The booklet’s orchestral list implies that, rather than the score’s various doublings, Gergiev elected to assign each part its own player and perhaps that helps the almost superhuman accuracy. And the fact that it was recorded over eight days must have helped, especially with the near-criminal trumpet part.

Occasionally it risks losing spontaneity. When Kovalev wakes up in scene 3, Vladislav Sulminsky sounds more concerned to follow what is, admittedly, a bizarre piece of vocal writing, rather than let himself go. According to Rozhdestvensky, one of Shostakovich’s few technical mis-steps was to forget how a balalaika is tuned, making the accompaniment to the valet Ivan’s aria unperformable[1]. In the MCO production the instrument was tuned in fifths and “played by a violinist on stage wearing a red shirt”. In the film no player is visible though it is clear that Boris Druzhinin is miming the instrument while he sings. However Gergiev’s player achieves it, he is completely unfazed by the difficulties.

Predictably, the choral contribution in Kazan Cathedral is superb: full voiced, even-toned and passionate. If anything this set gets better as it progresses. The battering of the nose is truly terrifying and the thoughts of the old lady (Elena Vitman) about the nearness of death and how she wants to be buried are nobly touching and completely unironic. Somehow she manages to bring out the melodic pre-echoes of the Fourteenth Symphony’s Lorelei before she’s rudely cut off by the bublik seller. Gergiev also trims the spoken interpolation towards the end, which seems to wax and wane at producers’ whims but, for me at least, can go on too long. Here there’s just about enough, crucially including Gogol’s observation that the most incredible thing is that an author should choose to write about such a subject.

As with all the Mariinsky’s CDs, the accompanying booklet is superbly produced, though Anglo- and Russophones benefit the most, with the complete libretto in both languages. French and German is added for the artists’ biographies and the synopsis (which suggests that the barber-shop Prologue may be Ivan Yakovlevich’s dream – perhaps derived from the Formalists’ observation that Нос (nose) is Cон (dream) backwards. Also quadrilingual is Leonid Gakkel’s slightly discursive article Keeping Intrinsic Value. And there’s a guide to Cyrillic pronunciation to help people through the libretto (there’s no transliteration).

The Nose is one of Shostakovich’s most finely etched scores: not a line is out of place, and Rozhdestvensky and Gergiev have struck different, and complementary, prints from this brilliant plate. The former, perhaps not the cleanest, brings the greater spirit but Gergiev allows us to see every detail.

[1] In Shostakovich: a Life Remembered Rozhdestvensky describes how he found a copyist’s score, annotated by the composer for the first performances, but there is no explanation as to why it didn’t address this problem or what might have happened in the first run.

John Riley