Quality opera in Fredonia, as plain as the nose on its stage

Since Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” it has been an accepted truth that if you want otherwise sensible people to accept some ridiculous premise, tell them that ridiculousness is the latest, trendiest thing.

Last Saturday, the 1891 Fredonia Opera House presented a performance by the company of the Metropolitan Opera House, in New York City, of an opera by Dmitri Shostakovich, based on a short story by Nikolai Gogol, which was also titled “The Nose.”

Several years ago, the Fredonia Opera House invested in the equipment which makes it possible for an audience in Western New York to see and hear in high definition, a performance from the giant stage of the Metropolitan Opera, at the exact moment when that performance is being seen and heard at Lincoln Center.

We considered this opportunity an excellent chance to remind you of what artistry is available, right here in our area, and at the same time to comment upon trends and statistics from the arts world in general. This week, let’s examine last Saturday’s performance of “The Nose,” and then look at the author of the original story and the composer, and finally, to discuss opera, which is — at once — a museum of greatness past, and a trendy and rapidly growing art form in our nation and in the world.

SATURDAY’S OPERA

People with even a minimal understanding of the arts realize that really good works of art have a surface meaning, and also have a long series of layers of meaning, to educate and delight the observer.

Sadly, the giant country of Russia has a long and tragic history of cruel and dominating governments. “The Nose,” was written in the first half of the 19th century, when that country was governed by an emperor, who was called the Czar.

Because the communist system which overthrew the czarist system of government in the early 19th century was so dominating, so internationally threatening, and usually even more cruel, many people have come to view the days of the czars as a golden period. Instead, it was a time of glorified mediocrity, marked by persecution of the innocent and nearly all minorities.

As Russian literature often does, “The Nose” focuses on a minor government official, a man who is not really incompetent, but who is neither talented nor creative. Collegiate Assessor Kovalev is a low-earning bureaucrat, living in St. Petersburg, the city which was the capital of Russia, at the time.

We first see Kovalev in a barber’s chair, having a shave. He complains that the barber’s hands smell bad. Shortly after he leaves, the barber’s wife serves a meal, and baked into a bread roll, the couple finds a severed nose. The barber recognizes it as Kovalev’s nose.

The wife is afraid that if the police learn that they have the official’s nose, they will be arrested, so she orders her husband to get rid of it. He takes the nose out, to find a way to be rid of it, and eventually decides to throw it into the river. Sadly, the disposal has been witnessed by a policeman, and the barber is taken in charge.

The scene shifts to Kovalev’s bedroom, where he is just awakening from his night’s sleep. He looks into a mirror, and discovers that his nose is gone. Embarrassed, he covers his face with a kerchief, and sets out to find his nose. Interestingly, in the Met’s production, which was directed by South African director William Kentridge, no effort is made to disguise that the singer who portrays Kovalev, bass-baritone Paulo Szot’s nose is exactly in its place, on his face. The director decides that like the Emperor’s new clothes, the fact that something is publicly said is good enough. The nose is gone, although it’s there.

Kovalev wanders about the city, and encounters his nose several times, a bit shocked that it has grown to the size of an entire adult body. By the clothing which the nose has adopted, Kovalev can see that his nose has risen above him, in society, and has become a government councilor. He has difficulty forcing himself to speak with the nose, because it outranks him, but when he does, it denies being his nose and orders him to go away.

Eventually, the police locate the nose, trying to board a train. They arrest it, and beat it back to its original size. An inspector returns it to its original owner, who spends a good long while trying to determine how to re-attach it to his face. When he finally succeeds, Kovalev dances a merry polka, then goes out onto the streets so that all the city can see his glorious nose, while those he passes each suggest what might be the meaning of this unusual story.

The work is short for an opera, lasting only about two hours, with no intermission. The host for the afternoon’s performance is soprano Patricia Racette, who will sing the leading role in the next production from the Met, “Tosca,” by Puccini. Usually, there is a tour of the backstage area and the audience at the Met, before curtain time, and during intermission of the opera. Instead, in this production, Ms. Racette describes another production which has not been chosen for High Definition broadcasts to theaters around the world, at least not during this season. “Two Boys,” by composer Nico Muhley, to an original story by Playwright Craig Lucas, is the story of a teenager who gets involved in a relationship with a total stranger, who tells him all sorts of things about himself which turn out not to be true, which makes him terribly angry.

In many ways, the possible evils of the internet might well be a more exciting subject for audiences around the world than are “Arabella” and “Falstaff,” and other works which have been included in the season, but the Met has settled for just giving us what amounts to a trailer, before the beginning of their other new venture.

The time spent on coming attractions films about”Two Boys,” and the lack of an intermission prevents the audience from seeing interviews with many of the major figures in the production. There is an interview with director Kentridge, who shares that the nose in his production was measured in proportion to his own organ of scent.

There was no interview with Szot, nor with conductor Pavel Smelkov, nor any of the world-respected designers associated with the production. “The Met: Live and in HD” is taking a risk that opera audiences, who notoriously shy away from new things and who tend to love melodic and beautiful music, will reject “The Nose,” but it would have been a more inspiring experience and one which would have attracted more future audience if they had invested more time and money into it.

GOGOL

Nikolai Vasilievevich Gogol was born in 1809, in what is now the independent country of Ukraine, which was then ruled by Russia. He was descended from Polish aristocrats who had been given land in Ukraine by Catherine the Great, before his birth. His family spoke both Ukrainian and Russian, on an everyday basis, so he was comfortable in writing in both languages.

The writer was not popular in school, being considered awkward and secretive. He was given nicknames such as “The Mysterious Dwarf,” and he turned early in his life to creating new circumstances with his writing, to escape the unhappiness of his reality. His first published stories were written in Ukrainian, and were written in the style of other popular Ukrainian writers.

He attracted the support of established writers, including the famed Pushkin, who sought to advance a Ukrainian voice. With their help, he won a job as a history professor, specializing in Ukrainian history, about which he knew practically nothing, and he survived a year in the job by tying a black cloth around his jaw, to simulate a sufferer from a toothache, and allowing colleagues to conduct his oral exams.

Freed from his job, he began a career of travel, throughout Europe and the Middle East, during which he sought the company of successful writers. His own reputation as a writer was bolstered by his use of outrageous silliness and imagination, including “The Nose.” Around his 40th birthday, he fell under the influence of a wandering preacher, who convinced him that his writings were sinful and wasteful. He began a program of near starvation and general self-punishment which undermined his health. He died at age 44, and as requested, was buried at a well-known Russian cemetery, adjacent to a large monastery. In 1931, Communist officials ordered the destruction of the monastery and its cemetery, and they opened Gogol’s grave, with the intention of transferring his remains to a national cemetery in Moscow, which had no religious affiliation.

When his grave was opened, Gogol was found to have been buried, lying face down. This inspired a public belief that he had been buried alive. The best-known artistic representation of Gogol is a statue by Nikolay Andreyev, although it has been determined that the statue represented only the sculptor’s idea of what he might have looked like, rather than any representation of his actual features.

Despite the large degree of exaggerated fantasy in his writings, such as a tale of a human nose which leaves its assigned face and goes wandering around, pretending to be an aristocrat, Gogol was categorized and written about as a realist. Many writers, including Russian novelist Vladimir Nobokov, have discussed the almost insane disconnect between which is actually in Gogol’s writings, and what experts have “found” in them, as being as ridiculous as the writings themselves.

“The Nose” has often been described as a ridiculing of Russian society, government, and even the Russian Orthodox Church, although Gogol himself was a believer in, and supporter of the czar, his government, and the Russian model of society in general. At the moment, the trend is to consider the story as nothing more than an example of playfulness.

SHOSTAKOVICH

Dmitri Shostakovich, who wrote the music for “The Nose,” was born in 1909, in St. Petersburg, which was the Russian capital, although both his paternal and maternal families had spent time in imprisonment in Siberia, for activity versus the Czars.

The young musician was only 11 when the Bolshevik Revolution overthrew Czar Nicholas II and created the U.S.S.R., which incorporated many republics into one giant union. Russia was one of those republics.

While later in his life, Shostakovich would fall afoul of Josef Stalin and the community system, “The Nose” was completed before he was 20 years old, when his political views were largely still unformed.

Modern musical experts tend to consider the opera a masterpiece. It was created in a variety of styles, which incorporate folk music, popular songs and atonal music, all bound together with classical music structures, including quartets and canons. The composer often quotes music and words from other sources, including the brief interlude when Kovalev returns from searching for his nose, and finds his servant lying on a couch, playing a guitar-like instrument, and singing a passage from Dostoevsky’s novel “The Brothers Karamazov.”

The musical style of the opera has been called an operatic illustration of the performing style of Monty Python.

In 1929, when the composer was still only 20 years old, Soviet bureaucrats insisted upon performing the music to the opera in a concert version, without singers or a staged production. Shostakovich fought to prevent the concert, because he said that without the performance, it would never be understood, and would be hated by the public. He was right, and it was never performed again until 45 years later, in 1974, when it was staged for the first time. By this time, Shostakovich was well-known in his country and around the world, and the back and forth opposition and support of the Soviet leaders was already well known.

Some writers have believed that the popularity of the opera in the 1970s was because listeners believed it was a veiled criticism of the Soviet system, and people went searching for anti-communist messages in a plot which was written before the communist system existed.

THE PRODUCTION

The Met has taken full advantage of the modern staging techniques which would not have been available to either to Gogol or to Shostakovich. Although there is a human-sized nose which walks about, sings, and dances, much of the activity by the separated appendage is seen as cartoons, projected onto the scenery which is largely painted to resemble the pages of newspapers.

Most of the printing on the backgrounds is in Russian, although some is in English.

The scene in which Kovalev finds his nose, praying in a giant cathedral, there is a huge projection of a nose on a scrim, and we see handsome young tenor Alexander Lewis, dressed identically to Szot, visible inside the projection and singing the Nose’s contempt for its former owner.

The opera is sung almost entirely in Russian, with English subtitles.

There was a large audience present at the Opera House, and listening to conversations among departing audience members, there was no audible rejection of the complex style of the opera and much discussion of what one thing or another in the opera might have been intended to mean.

The next programming at the 1891 Opera House will be tonight and Tuesday, at 7:30 p.m., when the film “Rush” will be shown.

Friday at 7:30 p.m. television weather forecaster Mike Randall will present his well-known, one-man show of “An Evening with Mark Twain.”

Next Saturday and Nov.12, at 7:30 p.m., the film “Don Jon,” by Joseph Gordon-Levitt will be shown.