Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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Cherchez le nez

March 26, 2010

Paulo Szot in The Nose
Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera 2010

I arrived in New York on Thursday just in time to catch the final performance of Shostakovich’s The Nose at The Metropolitan Opera. Did it live up to all the hype? Pretty much. By now you’ve probably read about the incredible production designed and directed by William Kentridge. It’s a work of art in and of itself independent of the opera going on inside it. The Soviet era agitprop look with ample amounts of high-end video projection technology was the perfect complement to this most Russian of works from the early 20th century. Cyrillic text flew here and there alongside English translations on the largely newsprint inspired backdrops. Surreal and funny, the runaway nose haunts nearly every scene in either video or in its newspaper flesh, giving the show a visual uniformity that you can't look away from for a second.

But rather than dwell on the beautifully absurdist production, I’d like to emphasize the superb comic and anxiety-ridden performance of Paulo Szot. Szot, who plays Kovyalov, is in nearly every scene of the opera and manages a difficult role in a production that calls for a fair amount of physical activity. He’s taken a few lumps in the press for being underpowered here, but he sounded fine from where I sat. Maybe some of the complainers should sit closer next time. Of course, architecturally, the Met is a house that undervalues vocalists without the largest of voices so criticism that he may not carry there seems somewhat inconsequential in the bigger picture. There were also some commentators who questioned the choice to cast him in this particular role for his Met debut - a demanding role in a work that has never been seen on the Met stage before. I think it was an excellent decision on his and his management's part. He stars in six sold out performances and doesn’t have to listen to the chattering classes compare him to an endless string of well-loved, mostly dead artists who’ve appeared in the same roles (and likely the same productions) in any number of war horses over the years. Szot stands out in The Nose as he should and plays against his good looks with a wonderfully neurotic and comically pathetic character.

Seeing the last of these sold-out shows got me thinking about what a shame it was that the other Shostakovich opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk got dropped from the Met schedule this season following the near implosion of the US economy under Bush. If the house can sell out performances of The Nose, maybe losing Lady Macbeth wasn't such a good economic idea after all. Shostakovich's wonderful, agitated score was beautifully played by the Met orchestra. The final performance was led by Pavel Smelkov, a composer and member of the Mariinsky Theater filling in for Valery Gergiev who is appearing with Mariinsky orchestra in Southern California this week. The Nose may have been an oddball hit for the Met, but it was certainly an artistically deserved one. It's too bad it didn't make it to the HD broadcast series this year, it would have been great to have a video record of this wonderful evening at the opera.


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