“The Nose”

Opera in three acts, op.15, by DMITRY SHOSTAKOVICH to a libretto by the composer, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Georgy Ionin and Alexander Preys after the story by NIKOLAY VASIL’YEVICH GOGOL; Leningrad, Malïy Opera Theatre, 18 January 1930

Major Platon Kuz’mich Kovalyov Collegiate Assessor

Ivan Yakovlevich a barber bass
Praskov’ya Osipovna Ivan Yakovlevich’s wife soprano
District Police Inspector very high tenor
Ivan Kovalyov’s servant tenor
The Nose tenor
The Countess’s Footman baritone
A Newspaper Clerk bass
A Traveller spoken
An Escorting Lady spoken
An Escorting Gentleman spoken
A Father bass
A Mother soprano
Her Sons tenor, baritone
Pyotr Fyodorovich tenor
Ivan Ivanovich baritone
An Old Countess contralto
A Pretzel-vendor soprano
A Doctor bass
Yarïzhkin tenor
Pelageya Grigor’yevna Podtochina mezzo-soprano
Her Daughter soprano
An Old Man tenor
Two New Arrivals tenor, bass
A Con-man bass
A Distinguished Colonel tenor
Two Dandies tenor, bass
An Anonymous Voice bass
A Respectable Lady mezzo-soprano
Her Two Sons basses
Khozrev-Mirza spoken
Three Acquaintances of Kovalyov tenor, basses
A Policeman bass
A Lackey bass
Porter to the Chief of Police tenor
A Cabby bass
A Coachman bass
An Elderly Lady silent
A Slender Lady silent
A Shirtfront Saleslady silent
Servants, policemen, students, passers-by, dependants, Ivan Yakovlevich’s acquaintances, firemen, worshippers, departing passengers, their escorts, residents, eunuchs
Setting St Petersburg in the 1830s

Shostakovich began composing The Nose in the summer of 1927, at the age of 20. At a time when giant strides were being taken in Soviet visual art, dramatic theatre and film, Soviet opera was comparatively stagnant. Shostakovich’s improbable choice of subject – Gogol’s absurdist anecdote about a petty bureaucrat who wakes one morning to discover that his nose is missing from its accustomed place and the ludicrous adventures which result – was almost guaranteed to breathe fresh life into Soviet operatic theatre.

Shostakovich completed The Nose in the summer of 1928. A suite, op.15a, consisting of seven sections from the opera was successfully performed in Moscow in November 1928, conducted by Nikolay Mal’ko. By the time the opera reached the stage in January 1930 – in a carefully prepared collaboration between the composer, the director Nikolay Smolich, the designer Vladimir Dmitriyev and the conductor Samuil Samosud – the cultural climate had changed for the worse. Self-righteous ‘proletarian’ critics at the peak of their cultural influence savaged Shostakovich’s opera and guaranteed it a short run. By the end of 1930 The Nose had been dropped from the repertory. In the 1960s it was performed in a number of Western cities including Florence, Rome, Santa Fe and Berlin. In 1974 the opera was rehabilitated in the Soviet Union, in a production supervised by the composer and directed by Boris Pokrovsky at the Moscow Chamber Opera Theatre.

Act 1 The introduction opens with a flourish and an angular fugato between trumpet, horn and trombone. A repetitive solo for oboe gives way to comic juxtaposition of pointillist melodic fragments and contrasting tone colours, a style similar to a circus march, that comes to characterize the whole opera. The curtain rises to reveal Ivan Yakovlevich in his barber’s shop shaving Kovalyov. The latter remarks that the barber’s hands always stink.

1.i Ivan Yakovlevich’s barber’s shop In the morning Ivan Yakovlevich wakes to the enticing smell of Praskov’ya Osipovna’s freshly baked bread, and he asks for some warm bread with an onion. As he slices into the bread he discovers, to his horror, a nose embedded there. Praskov’ya Osipovna launches into a breathless stream of shrill scolding, accusing her husband of drunkenness and other crimes. The perplexed Ivan tries to calm her and buy time for reflection but she, with high-pitched reiterations of ‘von’ (‘shoo’), chases him from the house to get rid of the nose. The stage darkens; an apparition of the District Police Inspector is seen.

1.ii The embankment Against a brisk staccato quaver pulse, melodic lines are gradually layered into the texture from lowest registers to highest; the barber rushes along the embankment, in increasing consternation and confronted by acquaintances, unable to dispose of the nose. He flings it into the river, and the tension is broken unexpectedly by an ethereal C major chord and a brass fanfare. The hapless barber is confronted by the Police Inspector, his lofty stature satirically limned by an extremely high tessitura. Ivan’s spoken attempts to wheedle out of the situation prove fruitless. He is unable to bribe the inspector who, with a soaring melodic line, demands to know what Ivan was doing. The scene plunges into darkness and an instrumental entr’acte is heard, scored exclusively for unpitched percussion instruments. The interlude has gained fame as one of the earliest examples of Western music for percussion ensemble; it is often performed as a separate piece and forms one of the movements of the op.15a Suite.

1.iii Kovalyov’s bedroom Accompanied by ingeniously graphic instrumental grunts and groans, Kovalyov wakes gradually. Remembering that the evening before a pimple had appeared on his nose, he calls for a mirror. His listlessness turns to agitation then disbelief when he sees that his nose is no longer on his face. Thinking he must still be asleep, he asks his servant to pinch him, but to no avail. Dressing quickly, he leaves to find the Chief of Police. A shrill piccolo blast introduces the lengthy instrumental interlude, a grotesque galop of frenetic rhythm and differentiated, highly colouristic scoring.

1.iv Kazan’ Cathedral In a sharp contrast to the preceding grotesque extremes, the musical atmosphere in this scene is more subdued and solemn, the dramatic pace more measured. Against a background of flowing choral prayers with a solo soprano line floating above, the Nose appears, seemingly at its devotions, dressed in the uniform of a State Councillor. Covering the blank spot on his face with a handkerchief, Major Kovalyov enters, recognizes his own nose, and is confused about how to address the appendage garbed in a rank higher than his own. In a nervous staccato he confronts the Nose, who, by contrast, responds throughout the ensuing conversation with utter self-possession and condescension. Kovalyov is unsuccessful in making himself understood; the Nose superciliously rejects any relationship with a man of lower rank. The arrival of two ladies distracts Kovalyov long enough to allow the Nose to escape.

Act 2 With an introductory trumpet fanfare, Kovalyov appears, seated in a droshky, outside the residence of the Chief of Police, where he learns that the Chief has just left. In frustration he tells his driver to go on to the newspaper dispatch office.

2.v The newspaper dispatch office The Countess’s Footman is explaining to the Clerk that though he himself would pay nothing for her dog, she offers a hundred rubles for its return, a sum bandied around enthusiastically by the gathered servants. Running in, Kovalyov is impatient to place his advertisement but the Clerk is in no hurry to wait on him and the Footman continues his reflections on dogs. It is not easy to understand Kovalyov’s predicament; when he makes it clear that his nose has vanished, the Clerk and servants have a good laugh at his expense. In a plaintive recitative-arioso that leads to tears, ‘Ya ne mogu vam skazat” (‘I cannot tell you’), Kovalyov tries to win their sympathy. After some awkwardness, the Clerk replies that he cannot place such a notice, lest the newspaper lose its reputation. He advises Kovalyov to see a doctor. To convince the sceptical Clerk, Kovalyov uncovers his face. Truly amazed, the Clerk now recommends that Kovalyov sell his story as a freak of nature and, in a gesture of friendship, offers him a pinch of snuff. At this final affront, Kovalyov loses his temper. The remaining servants place their advertisements, in an elaborate eight-voice staccato ‘hocket’ canon that uses a single rhythmic value reinforced by the bass drum and which leads seamlessly into a lengthy instrumental entr’acte based on fugal entries.

2.vi Kovalyov’s apartment Compared with the complex contrapuntal texture of the preceding interlude, Ivan’s folklike song to a text borrowed from Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, ‘Nepobedimoy siloy priverzhen ya k miloy’ (‘An invisible force ties me to my beloved’) and accompanied by strumming balalaikas, makes a striking contrast. In a foul temper, Kovalyov chases his servant away and lapses into a monologue of self-pity, ‘Bozhe moy!’ (‘My God!’).

Act 3.vii The outskirts of St Petersburg An empty coach is seen. The District Police Inspector has orders to capture the Nose, which may be attempting to leave the city, and with slapstick bumbling he attempts to muster and post his recalcitrant men. To rally their spirits they intone, against a steady pulse, a melancholy song, ‘Podzhav khvost, kak sobaka’ (‘With tail between legs, like a dog’), that is capped by the melodic howling of the Inspector.

People due to leave the city start to board the coach. In an increasingly complex ensemble, passengers make their farewells while the police watch for the offender, unsure what he might look like, but convinced that he is the very devil. To the strains of a ‘parody’ waltz, Ivan Ivanovich exchanges pleasantries with his good friend Pyotr Fyodorovich. On her departure, the old Countess predicts her imminent death, to the earnest protestations of her servants. The momentum picks up as a young lady pretzel-vendor appears, distracting the attention of the police and leading to a scene of mass confusion. At the climax, the coach begins to depart and the Nose runs after it asking for it to stop and thus frightening the horse. The Coachman fires; his passengers jump out and everyone pursues the Nose. They surround it and, with enthusiastic rhythmic ejaculations, beat it mercilessly, which has the effect of returning it to normal size. As the passengers run after the departing coach, the Inspector wraps the nose in a piece of paper and withdraws with his men.

3.viii Kovalyov’s apartment and Podtochina’s apartment The stage is split in two. Triumphantly the District Police Inspector returns the nose to the impatient Kovalyov with much good-natured chatter. At his broad hint, Kovalyov gives him money, but the hint needs to be repeated twice more until the Inspector is satisfied with his reward. To a bassoon solo over an eerie, sustained string texture, Kovalyov tries unsuccessfully to stick the nose back on his face. He calls for the Doctor who, after painful prodding and poking, advises him that trying to re-attach his nose might only make things worse. Kovalyov’s entreaties are in vain. In breathless patter, he considers the causes of his affliction: undoubtedly Madame Podtochina, who pressured him to marry her daughter, has used some witchcraft on him. Yarïzhkin advises him to write to her and settle the matter. In Madame Podtochina’s apartment, the daughter, a caricature of romantic operatic heroines, tells her fortune with cards. The sighing melodic phrases and arpeggiated chordal accompaniment underscore the parodied sentimental romance. Mother and daughter receive Kovalyov’s letter and send a reply, which he in turn receives. Shostakovich sets the reading of both letters simultaneously in a driving staccato quartet.

The polyphonic layering of isolated snippets of gossip, sung a cappella, leads to a bustling crowd scene, as the residents of St Petersburg exchange rumours and rush about to catch a glimpse of the elusive Nose. As the pandemonium reaches riot proportions, firemen appear and douse the crowd.

3.ix Kovalyov’s apartment In the first of the two continuous scenes that form the epilogue, Kovalyov jumps out of bed and dances a polka in joy; his nose is back in its place! Ivan Yakovlevich arrives to shave him and the two exchange their customary pleasantries.

3.x Nevsky Prospect The rhythm of the polka continues to dominate as Kovalyov parades along the Prospect, meeting acquaintances and delighting in the return of his nose. He is greeted warmly by Madame Podtochina and her daughter, tells them an anecdote, and is invited to lunch. Flirting with a vendor, he invites her to visit him. The curtain falls to the stroke of a bass drum.

The Nose was a selfconsciously experimental work, influenced particularly by the productions of the theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold, but also by the cinematic techniques of Sergey Eisenstein and the music of Stravinsky and Berg, as well as that of music-hall and circus. Though largely non-tonal and non-lyrical in style, it makes extensive use of the parody of familiar genres and the grotesque, highly differentiated juxtaposition of tone colours. The opera’s dimensions are almost unwieldy, calling for a minimum of 78 sung roles plus spoken roles and chorus, though the composer indicated that many roles could be doubled and tripled. Shostakovich paid special attention to the nuances of Gogol’s language and aimed for an equal balance between music and theatre.

The above is taken from the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, attributable to Laurel Fay

Here are some articles of interest:

Shostakovich’s ‘The Nose’: Geoffrey Norris. The Musical Times, Vol. 120, No. 1635 (May, 1979), pp. 393-394. Published by: Musical Times Publications Ltd.

Correspondence of Literary Text and Musical Phraseology in Shostakovich’s Opera the Nose and Gogol’s…
Alexander N. Tumanov
Russian Review, Vol. 52, No. 3 (Jul., 1993), pp. 397-414
Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of The Editors and Board of Trustees of the Russian Review

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