Shostakovich – Nos

Opéra National de Paris – Bastille, Tuesday November 15 2005

Conductor: Valery Gergiev. Production: Yuri Alexandrov. Sets: Zinovy Margolin. Costumes: Maria Danilova. Solists, orchestra and chorus of the Mariinski Theatre.

I feel very sheepish about this review of Nos or The Nose (Le Nez here, of course). It’s a rare work in the theatre, and despite my long acquaintance with Shostakovich, one I’d never heard.

We had the Mariinski troupe and Gergiev in the pit, and a lavish production in giant, elaborate sets. The curtain went up to reveal a cobbled courtyard, but with the rooftops and chimneys facing the audience, the buildings forming a rectangular “tunnel” in exaggerated perspective and the cobbles projected on a mobile screen at the rear. The barber was suspended on a rope in front of the cobbles. As the opera progressed, the buildings moved in or out, up or down; the roofs opened and closed to reveal here a giant officer, there long banners of newspaper small ads, and the projections came and went, most spectacularly to reveal a huge tubular steel “cage” with a gangway down the middle, spotlights glaring into the audience, and lots of smoke.

Various characters and the chorus clung to the cage. There was a great deal of activity – a very great deal - of many and various kinds, the overall effect being a cross between contemporary circus and 70s experimental theatre: mad-looking bearded types in greatcoats pulling black rickshaws, nun-like women in white, waving lilies, clowns, angels (or demons) rising up into heaven, things wheeled on and wheeled off… In the pit, all hell was let loose by Gergiev, with apparently more feeling than insistence on accuracy, and it was up to the singers to do whatever they could to pierce through – which some did, others didn’t.

I had, stupidly, done nothing to prepare for this work, and came to it after 4 hours of Tamerlano on Sunday and a late dinner after Bruckner on Monday, so I was tired. What with trying to follow what was going on on stage, read the copious supertitles and deal with perhaps the most relentlessly uncompromising opera score I’ve ever come across, I couldn’t face the second half. And as one of my fellow subscribers had a streaming cold and the other simply hated the whole thing, we left at half time.

I haven’t done that for ages… it’s something we usually reserve for Renée Fleming. I could make the excuse that the critics also found it a lot to cope with – La Libre Belgique for example: “Alexandrov remains firmly in the register of farce: it’s baroque in the original sense of the term, busy, brilliant, impressive but sometimes kitsch, and vertigo or even lassitude await us here and there.”

But sheepish I am, and as there were only five performances, it’s too late to do anything about it…

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