Shostakovich’s The Nose in Basel
Shostakovich’s comic satirical opera The Nose, is a radical piece, cocking a snook at not only Russian communal life and bureaucracy (in Tsarist times) but also traditional operatic form. It was composed at a time when “revolutionary art” was still in favour and it just about managed to get performed, in 1930, before Stalinist policies clamped down on free artistic expression. It was resurrected in the Soviet Union only in 1974 in Boris Pokrovsky’s famous production for the Moscow Chamber Opera, which is still available on You Tube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=muxgjshs6MY).
That production, while caricaturing the people and events involved in the disappearance and rediscovery of a petty official’s nose, adopted a quasi-naturalistic approach. The Basel staging, devised by the experienced German director/designer Herbert Fritsch could not have been more different. The only set was abstract, a series of open three-sided and multicoloured boxes nestling in one another. I had no problem with that; it served well as a symbol of ever-increasing goings-on about … nothing. But the remaining components of the production irritated me. Action was confined to the multitude of performers – and there were many of them – prancing on and off stage in a minimum of interaction with the leading protagonists, jogging and dancing throughout in time with the music. A whole evening of this became tedious.
The libretto was given in a German translation, a reasonable decision since it would have been onerous for such a large number of singers to learn their parts in Russian. However the surtitles, intended presumably for both German-speakers and others to follow the text, were placed so high on the stage that they were very difficult to read. This when considered in the context of the other features of the production which I have already described leads to a suspicion that rendering the dialogue largely incomprehensible was deliberate. Perhaps the whole show was intended as a Dadaist-like presentation: it did not matter that we could not understand the text because it was in any event nonsense. If so, this does not do justice to the work, since its satirical dimension is lost.
It remains to commend the conductor Clemens Heil and his team of hard-working musicians and singers for the considerable efforts it must have taken to prepare the performance, particularly when it was about … nothing.