How does he smell?
06/13/01 and 15-16 June 2001
Dmitri Shostakovich: The nose
Jeremy Huw Williams (Platon Kuzmich Kovalyov), Tim Hicks (Ivan Yakovelich), Sara Egan (Praskovna Ossipovna/Daughter), Hilton Marlton (Police inspector), Hubert Francis (Ivan), Pamela Wilcock (Cathedral soloist), Alistair Armit (The nose/Yarishkin), Simon Wilding (Newspaper clerk/doctor), Anna Boucher (Roll seller/Alexandra Grigoryevna Podtochina)
The Opera Group Ensemble
Patrick Bailey (conductor), John Fulljames (director)
06/15/01 and 19, 22, 25, 28, 30 June, 3, 5 July 2001
Dmitri Shostakovich: Lady Macbeth of Mtensk
Vivian Tierney (Katerina), Pavlo Hunka (Boris), Rhys Meirion (Zinovy), Robert Brubaker (Sergei), Meryl Richardson (Aksinya), John Graham-Hall (Shabby peasant), Graeme Danby (Priest), Roberto Salvatori (Chief of police), Richard Roberts (Teacher), Grant Dickson (Old convict), Leah-Marian Jones (Sonyetka)
ENO Chorus and Orchestra
Mark Wrigglesworth (conductor), Lynn Binstock, David Pountney (director)
After Opera North's Paradise Moscow at Sadler's Wells in May, London now gets Shostakovich's other two operas within a month, both also in first-rate productions. The contrast between the early and later works is poignant. The dream-like, explicitly avant-garde Nose was subject to some political criticism when it appeared in 1930. But it was Lady Macbeth that landed Shostakovich in it: Stalin saw the opera in 1936, two years after its premiere, and hated it. Yet Shostakovich represented, and probably intended, Lady Macbeth as a parable of the bourgeois abuse of the family, quite according to Engels. Stalin's tin ear robbed the Soviet Union of a major operatic composer who was trying to produce serious work within the system. The self-censored Paradise Moscow, from the late 1950s, has its moments, but is well-crafted rather than brilliant.
The nose is based on a short story by Gogol. Kovalyov, a bureaucrat, wakes up one morning without his nose which, human size, is running about town on its own. The opera consists of a series of gently nightmarish scenes: the barber finds a nose in his bread roll, the nose goes to church, Kovalyov has Kafkaesque dealings with the police and a newspaper office, the police capture the nose, Kovalyov has to bribe the police chief to give it back, then give money to the doctor who can't get the nose to go back on his face. There is a striking rework of the letter scene from Onegin, when Kovalyov writes to a woman he believes has bewitched his nose and she reads the letter at the same time. The nose finally reattaches itself, Kovalyov wakes up and repeats the scene with the barber before a quiet finale as he goes for a stroll on Nevsky Prospekt.
The music, rarely heard in London, follows the structure and detail of the story in many ways, for example, with a noisy percussion interlude at the point (a dream-like unexplained shift) where the nose becomes large and mobile. It often seems concrete, made up of familiar dance forms and canons, like the silent-film music with which Shostakovich paid his bills in those day, except that what is happening has no obvious logic. The Opera Group Ensemble, fifteen of them in total playing perhaps twice as many instruments, gave a heroic performance in Patrick Bailey's chamber version and seemed to be having fun. The singers were equally assured, impressively dramatic in the many post-Falstaff ensembles, especially amusing in the scene in the newspaper office where everyone is shouting for attention in a canon. Alistair Armit was a resonant nose.
The clever production had its own kind of logic. For example, all the authority figures were tall or high up in some way, the police chief on stilts, the newspaper clerk on a high desk, the doctor with a tall hat. But, like the music, it was really just there, prompting you to ask why you were trying to make sense of such an absurd story at the same time as it held your attention.
Lady Macbeth of Mtensk is closer to a conventional opera in its plot and format. It is the story of a soprano, abused by a bass and loved then betrayed by a tenor. But musically it belongs in the 1930s. The ENO's production, dating from 1987, has a camp gloom like the "My forgotten man" segment from Gold diggers of 1933, or more generally perhaps Weill's German works. (The ending of Lady Macbeth, when the heroine drowns her love rival and herself in a lake and an ethereal chorus floats above them is a kind of grim inversion of the end of Der Silbersee.) This suits the work well. German romanticism is a key element in the music, always parodied and undercut, but as in The nose the music is often concrete, symbolist even. An on-stage brass band, playing very loudly during climaxes (for example when Katerina has sex with her lover Sergei) but also apparently at random, is a funny if ear-splitting conjunction of Mahler and performance art.
In this revival of the widely-praised production, the orchestra and singers are well up to scratch. Vivian Tierney is an intensely powerful, often totally still, Katerina, singing magnificently throughout. She is sympathetic, as she gets it in the neck from all sides, and admirable for taking control in the only way she can, through adultery and killing people, and she is utterly terrifying. Robert Brubaker as Sergei, her scumbag lover, doesn't quite look slimy enough, but he also sings terrifically, full of energy and danger. Paul Hunka as Boris, her thug father-in-law, is also spot on, solid and sinister at the same time. Hunka, British of Ukrainian descent, might be a superb Mazeppa one day. The rest of the cast provided a rich set of cameos, with Leah-Marian Jones an alluring rival for the nearly beaten down Katerina in the prison camp. It was no surprise that Katerina slow-burned and then killed her, and herself as she had nowhere else to go.