On February 27, at the Cutler Majestic Theater, Opera Boston executed one of the most daring acts of operatic programming one is likely to see in the United States these days. By delivering a consistent and high-quality performance of one of the most difficult scores in the repertoire—in the original language, no less—the troupe demonstrated both its brave skill and energetic panache.
For The Nose, Dmitri Shostakovich set a libretto based on a satirical short story by Nikolai Gogol in which a minor state official wakes up one morning to find that his nose is missing and spends a frustrating and embarrassing day trying to get it back. The opera was premiered in 1930 when the composer was only 22 years old—that is, before he began slipping into his many habits that make his later music so familiar. The music in this work reflects the creative mind of a brilliant young artist wanting to burst out of convention, take the compositional bull by the balls, and hurl it about over his head as it bellows out hyper-carnivalistic dances, bizarrely pointillistic fugatos, darkly poignant airs, and goofishly militaristic marches. It is a bear of a challenge for singers and instrumentalists alike, most of whom spend an inordinate amount of time in the extremities of technique and tessitura, and all of whom have to negotiate musically challenging ensemble work.
It was the handling of those challenges as led by conductor Gil Rose that was perhaps the only negative aspect of this performance. Rose seemed very concerned with keeping the wildness of the music reigned in, an understandable impulse considering how easily it could all just bolt unchecked out of the stall. However, that frenetic verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown energy, even in the slower passages, is what gives the work much of its personality, and losing it cramped some of the colorfully jittering impulses inherent in the music. On the other hand, Rose’s mastery of the score resulted in nearly flawless playing and balance in the orchestra and provided a solid ground for the singers to keep control of their various musical steeds while still allowing their vocal skills to shine.
Although the acting often seemed somewhat stilted, most of the singing, even down to the chorus, was impressive. There were also some truly stand-out performances. Stephen Salters milked every emotional nuance possible from the role of the nose-less Kovalyov. He was able to color his strong and velvety voice with comically tragic shades, giving the character a hilarious desperation that made it quite clear the nose is really a metaphor for a different, uniquely male body part. Among the other roles, primarily for men, are a few that exploit the Russian conservatory tradition of producing inhumanly high, bright tenors. Yeghishe Manucharyan as Kovalyov’s soused lackey Ivan, Matthew DiBattista as Kovalyov’s good-humored friend Yaryzhkin, and especially Frank Kelley as the wacky, screeching Police Inspector all delivered the sonic radiance of that tradition with remarkable drive and flair. And in smaller but no less impressive rolls, Vladimir Matorin as the buffoonish barber and Sol Kim Bentley as the seductive pretzel girl threatened at times to steal the entire show.
The stage design was unexpectedly bleak, consisting primarily of various scrims with black-and-white paintings of urban St. Peterburg, c. 1830. Add to that the minimalist sets and the colorfully gritty costuming, and the whole production looked as if it had been conceived by Bob Cratchit’s and Sweeny Todd’s Russian-vacation love-child. Considering the brilliance—both literally and figuratively—of the story and music, it took some time to get used to the darkness of the staging. But once the eyes and mind adjusted, it became part of an ultimately satisfying and compelling performance of a fascinatingly quirky work of music-theater.