Opera Boston’s New England Premiere of Shostakovich’s The Nose

In many ways, art that attests to the human experience through whimsy and farce navigates a more dangerous thicket than those more “serious” works of tragedy, despair, and reconciliation. Around each turn lurk the fearsome beasts of banality and vulgarity, the tearing thorns of excess, and the bottomless pit of jokes landing heavy on a silent crowd. In their pithy new production of Dmitri Shostakovich’s youthful opera, The Nose, Opera Boston and its music director, Gil Rose, navigate this thicket expertly, offering a wildly absurd operatic experience with poise, excellent timing, and a multidimensional theatrical wit that demonstrates the brilliant collaboration of this all-star production team and first-rate cast.

The composer’s first opera, written at the tender age of twenty-two, The Nose demonstrates the bitter, ironic, and not quite out-of-control Shostakovich we know from his later works. In it, however, we find an endless reservoir of something rare in his better-known music: playfulness. In this adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s famous short story, Shostakovich mines every bit of absurdity and comic frustration from the spiritually bankrupt ambitions of the minor bureaucracy. In it, a self-satisfied Russian official awakes to find his nose missing. He eventually finds the nose overgrown, wandering about town and putting on airs while holding a bureaucratic post marginally higher than that of its former owner. This humiliates the befuddled man, and he sets about scheming to recover the erstwhile olfactory appendage.

Stage director Julia Pevzner realizes this clever playfulness marvelously in her deft Opera Boston directorial debut. The high level of action on stage seems to draw more heavily on comic theater than on traditional operatic blocking, and this choice shows Shostakovich’s dazzling, frantic score to good advantage. Highlights of the direction include moments of perfectly-timed, laugh-out-loud physical comedy, a tactic rarely employed this well on the operatic stage. These delightful visual effects abound, such as a male chorus arranging themselves to imply the shape of a classified ad column as they sing quotes from the newspaper, or a perfectly-timed shudder passing through a line of policemen as their chief shrieks out commands. In an even more thoughtful visual pun, the protagonist uses his handkerchief to reverently dust the “shoulders” of the officially clad, gargantuan nose, referencing at once the gestures of a fawning underling and those of a weekday-morning flu victim.

Baritone Stephen Salters gives a musically and dramatically compelling account of Kovalyov, the protagonist, while conductor Gil Rose leads the small but excellent orchestra through a notoriously difficult score. And a medium-sized chorus, led by Edward Jones, offers a huge sound, robust and intense, but well balanced.

Members of the cast do quite well to recognize the nature of the music they present. While the work has its moments of genuine emotional torment, they are always played with a sort of stylized excess. And there is a pleasant uniformity of tone throughout—whether during Kovalyov’s melodramatic bemoaning of his own absurd fate, or soprano Sol Kim Bentley’s delightful portrayal of a flirtatious pretzel saleswoman, each dramatic choice resonates nicely with Gogol’s farce and Shostakovich’s acerbic score.

The Nose doesn’t necessarily offer profound insight into the human condition, but it effortlessly transcends simple slapstick humor. The production is light and quick, smart, and thoroughly entertaining. The score is a rarely heard gem from one of our best-loved composers, and the cast quickly draws the enthusiastic audience into the bizarre fray. Praise to Opera Boston for undertaking this challenging, but rewarding work.