The Nose (1927-1928) [101:37]
Kuzmich Kovalev, a collegiate assessor - Vladislav Sulimsky (baritone)
Ivan Yakovlevich, a barber - Alexei Tanovitski (bass)
Praskovya Osipovna, Ivan Yakovlevich’s wife - Tatiana Kravtsova
A district contable - Andrei Popov (tenor)
The Nose - Sergei Semishkur (tenor)
A doctor - Gennady Bezzubenkov (bass)
A clerk in a newspaper office - Vadim Kravets (bass)
Ivan, Kovalev’s valet - Sergey Skorokhodov (tenor)
Yaryzhkin - Yevgeny Strashko (tenor)
Pelagaya Grigorievna Podtochina - Yelena Vitman (mezzo)
Pelagaya Grigorievna Podtochina’s daughter - Zhanna Dombrovskaya
Chorus and orchestra of The Mariinsky Theatre/Valery Gergiev
rec. 15-23 July 2008, Mariinsky Concert Hall, St. Petersburg, Russia.
Texts and translations provided
MARIINSKY MAR0501 [50:41 + 50:56]
‘An anarchist’s hand grenade’, is how one early performer described Shostakovich’s opera The Nose. Based on Nicolai Gogol’s satirical short story of the same name - written in 1835-1836 - the opera tells the bizarre story of a government bureaucrat who loses his nose and embarks on a journey to get it back. At one level it’s about the protagonist’s loss of status, while on another - more Freudian one - it’s about the loss of his manhood. It’s a riotous tale, framed in the best burlesque tradition and with a nod towards the world of silent cinema. Its premiere in 1930 also marked the tail-end of a brief, but productive, period of artistic freedom in Russia.
Up until now the benchmark for this work was Gennady Rozhdestvensky’s account on Melodiya 1001192, coupled with Shostakovich’s Op. 63b, The Gamblers, written in 1941-1942. Gergiev offers no coupling - some of the Jazz Suites would have been welcome - but what he does offer is a strong cast, fine playing and exemplary sound. The latter comes as no surprise, given that James Mallinson, the man behind the LSO Live! series, is listed as the recording producer.
The cheeky little overture, with its comical instrumental solos and assorted musical silliness, sets the stage - quite literally - for an interesting stand-off between the Rozhdestvensky and Gergiev recordings. The sound of the latter is sumptuous and detailed, whereas the Melodiya version - recorded in 1978 - is leaner and more closely miked. That’s no bad thing, as the music has the feel of a below-street cabaret, an ambiance that suits the score rather well. By contrast, Gergiev’s presentation is like a Putin-era oligarch, sleek and sophisticated, the voices set in a more natural acoustic.
As the opera begins Kovalev’s barber, Ivan Yakovlevich, wakes up to find a nose in his bread roll. Gergiev draws silken sounds from the Mariinsky strings, the powerful bass drum announcing Ivan’s unwelcome discovery. Even the shrewish shrieks of the barber’s wife seem more polished in Gergiev’s account, but thankfully there’s no wide vibrato to spoil things in either version. And the spooky, percussive climax to this scene has never sounded more thrilling than it does on this new set. That said, one need make no apologies for Rozhdestvensky’s Soviet-era recording which, although sharply focused, is not at all fatiguing. Sonically the only downside is that some of the climaxes are either woolly or constricted.
Ivan Yakovlevich’s attempts to dispose of the offending appendage in scene ii are superbly paced under Gergiev, the crisp, agitated bass adding to the barber’s growing anxiety. And goodness, listen to the blaze of sound as Ivan is caught dropping the nose off the quayside. Add to that moment of frisson the adroitly managed E flat of the constable who catches Ivan in the act of disposal. I was most impressed by Gergiev’s overall approach to the score, which captures all these surreal moments without ever resorting to bluster or bombast. To be fair, Rozhdestvensky goes easy on the ham as well, and in his hands the jittery interlude that follows crackles with energy. The Mariinsky percussionists aren’t quite so volatile, but they do play with commendable brio.
Even at this stage it’s obvious this isn’t going to be an either-or situation; indeed, both recordings are must haves, blessed as they are with consistently good singing and a sure sense of drama. But don’t forget the slapstick - the trombone fart in scene iii for instance - where Kovalev discovers his pecker has gone AWOL. The ensuing Galop is crisply played by the Mariinsky band, but it’s Rozhdestvensky who captures the sheer hysteria of this music; what a pity, then, that the Melodiya sound overloads and distorts in the more frenzied passages.
In the wonderfully wacky Kazan Cathedral scene, where Kovalev spies The Nose attired as a State Councillor and tries to tempt him back, Rozhdestvensky’s distant worshippers sound suitably spectral; indeed, this is an essay in eerie Expressionism, worthy of Wiene or Murnau. And the moment when Kovalev is distracted by a beautiful young woman brings genuine pathos to this tale. Gergiev adds a patina of sophistication to this scene which, paradoxically, underlines its strangeness rather than detracts from it.
And surely one can sympathise with Kovalev’s Kafkaesque attempts to report the crime and place a newspaper ad appealing for the errant organ’s immediate return. The short Prologue to this Act is as ‘straight’ as we’ve come to expect from Gergiev, while Rozhdestvensky opts for broader comedy. The same applies to the latter’s Kovalev, Edvard Akimov, who tends to over emote at times. By contrast, Gergiev’s Sulimsky invites our sympathy without resorting to such crude characterisation. Ditto in the final scene of this Act, set in Kovalev’s apartment, where Sulimsky brings genuine operatic intensity to his lament (‘God, good God. Why this calamity?’).
In Act III scene I a posse of policemen are stationed outside a posting-inn with strict instructions to scrutinise the coach passengers. They sing a sad chorale - particularly moving under Gergiev - before an old aristocrat claims The Nose has made off with her shawl. The Nose is forced to return to its original shape and the Police Inspector scoops it up in triumph. Musically this scene is not as wild as one might expect; indeed, it’s Gergiev who reminds us that there’s a broader canvas here, and that this isn’t just a series of witty tableaux. But po-faced he isn’t; just sample the controlled anarchy that accompanies the arrest of The Nose.
The problem, of course, is one of reattachment, and although Kovalev is delighted at the return of his appendage - ‘It really is my nose! There’s the spot’ - his glee soon turns to despair. There’s little to choose between the two versions at this point, as both are sharply drawn. Kovalev is convinced that Madame Podtochina - whose daughter he wants to marry - has put a spell on him, a charge she roundly denies. There is still farce aplenty, and in a scenic intermezzo the city is in a frenzy, believing The Nose to be hiding in a department store. Time and again Gergiev and his crew find much to delight the ear and tickle the funny bone. The opera rushes headlong towards its conclusion, with Kovalev waking up to discover his nose is reattached. Again, Rozhdestvensky seems rather rustic in his reading, Gergiev finely calibrated to the end.
In a whimsical epilogue, set on st. Petersburg’s very public Nevsky Prospect, Kovalev shows passers-by - including the bemused Madam Podtochina and her daughter - that his status has been restored. More importantly, perhaps, his masculinity is intact, and to prove it he invites a pretty flower girl to his apartment. The opera ends with a single, very sudden, drum thwack, superbly caught by the Mariinsky engineers.
This set augurs well for the future of the Mariinsky label, which already includes two Shostakovich symphonies (Nos. 1 and 15) and Tchaikovsky’s 1812, both directed by Gergiev. Packaging is excellent and there’s a chunky booklet as well. The biggest drawback of the Rozhdestvensky set is the lack of a libretto; the new recording does offer one - in Russian and English - but not in transliteration, which is odd. That said, production values are high, not least when it comes to the superlative DSD (Direct Stream Digital) recording. But rest assured, even on conventional players and drives these discs sound magnificent.
So much for sonics, what about the performance? Gergiev certainly takes a more nuanced, operatic view of this score, helped by committed singing from his principals. The Rozhdestvensky set is clearly old school, with ripe brass playing and a somewhat exaggerated vocal style, but it never fails to entertain. Listeners may prefer one to the other, but I’d be reluctant to part with either.