Page to Opera Stage – How Shostakovich Turned Gogol’s 25-Page ‘The Nose’ Into a Sprawling Chamber OperaBy Carmen Paddock
“Page to Opera Stage” looks at stories – real-life or fiction, old and new – that have inspired operas, and the ways these narratives have been edited and dramatized to fit a new medium. This week, we look at Nikolai Gogol’s idiosyncratic, fantastical novella “The Nose” and Dmitri Shostakovich’s equally chaotic opera adaptation.
One morning, a barber finds a nose in the loaf of bread his wife has just baked and is caught by a guard when trying to dispose of it into St Petersburg’s Neva River. At the same time, Major Kovalyov, Collegiate Assessor awakes, checks his mirror – and his nose has vanished! When he finds it, the appendage has somehow become a State Councillor – several ranks higher than the beleaguered assessor.
“Gracious sir,” he begs, only to be brushed aside by the haughty runaway. How can Kovalyov face his colleagues, superiors, or fiancée-to-be with a face as flat as a pancake? “He thought, and thought – and did not know what to think of it!”
As with many of Nikolai Gogol’s works, “The Nose (1836)” sits somewhere between a socially conscious dark comedy and a grotesque horror, with a dash of romanticism thrown in. His writing is idiosyncratic, using many colloquialisms in the narration describing characters’ inner lives and constantly evoking the senses (the barber Yakolevich’s hands always stink, and the idiomatic “слышать” – formally “to hear,” but “to smell and/or sense” in everyday conversation – is the verb of choice for olfactory descriptions). On the other side, the bulk of social interactions outside spouses and servants are unfailingly rigid, using the formal form of address and full titles in conversation. Gogol’s prose is rich, carried by an omniscient narrator who occasionally breaks the fourth wall to comment on the dreamlike proceedings, questioning their veracity even as he swears their truth.
This bizarre little tale is the source for Dmitri Shostakovich’s first opera, written between 1927-1928 when the composer was not yet 22-years-old. The novella is roughly 25 pages long; while the opera is relatively brief at under two hours, it features 82 singing and speaking roles to create the vibrancy and chaos of Gogol’s St Petersburg. Furthermore, Shostakovich animates the rumors of the nose’s human exploits. In the book, Kovalyov merely hears that his nose was spotted strolling on the Nevsky Prospekt and in the Tauride Gardens, but Shostakovich’s boisterous crowd scenes animate these hungry people-watchers.
In the opera’s expanded world, even the portions without the titular nose seem refracted through a morbidly satirical alternate reality. Much dialogue is taken directly from the Russian text, but additional material is added from other Gogol works – among these “Dead Souls,” “Diary of a Madman,” and “The Overcoat” – as well as a song from Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov.” As Tchaikovsky did with Pushkin’s narration-heavy “Eugene Onegin,” Shostakovich replaces Gogol’s absurdist descriptors by fleshing out minor characters such as Kovalyov’s valet Ivan, making him the mirror of his master’s panic and a sounding board for his next moves.
Gogol’s nightmarish world is vividly brought further to life by Shostakovich’s orchestrations. His colorful music – eclectic and daring even now – serves to create a nervy atmosphere that conveys a reality two nightmarish degrees removed from our world, seeping the audience in the drama. The percussion section includes a rachet (noisemaker) and a musical saw. The numerous vocal roles are almost all unfailingly demanding, with giant leaps between registers and punishing high sections for the tenor singing the nose’s human incarnation. The exaggerated scenarios and figures are a good vehicle for his wide-ranging musical montages, drawing inspiration from folk songs, atonality, and more traditional canons.
Shostakovich was deeply attached to the adaptation process of “The Nose.” He co-wrote the libretto alongside Yevgeny Zamyatin, Georgy Ionin, and Alexander Preis. He had one eye on the theatrical sensibilities of director Vsevolod Meyerhold, who was to direct the Bolshoi premiere that never happened. When a concert performance of “The Nose” was mounted in 1929, Shostakovich protested, saying that the piece “loses all meaning if it is seen just as a musical composition.”
“The Nose” instead premiered in Leningrad in 1930 to a damning reception: it bore no relation to the revolutionary cause, said the Russian Association of Proletariat Musicians. While “The Nose” premiered in the US in 1965, it was not performed in the Soviet Union again until 1974 – one year before Shostakovich’s death. It is now a beloved piece of modern opera, thankfully often performed in a fully staged rendition.
In a fun bit of wordplay, the Russian for “nose” – “Нос” – spelled backwards is “Сон” – “dream.” The nightmare can be taken at face value, or it can stand as a metaphor for a sudden loss of pride and manhood. Gogol’s novella is tied to its distinct time and place, as the Table of Ranks introduced by Peter the Great led to the illusion of meritocracy and social mobility in a brutally stratified society. The dog-eat-dog ascent to the highest ranks and a cushy hereditary nobility could turn friend against friend – or one man’s body against itself. The lie of equality and opportunity is far from exclusive to Gogol’s time; it finds truth as much truth in the early days of the Soviet Union as it does in today’s late capitalist limbo.
But the biggest laugh – or cry – of the tale is perhaps the moment when an unthinking newspaper editor offers the noseless major some snuff to calm him down. Even without social comparison, “The Nose” is suffused with absurd hilarity and understated heartbreak, ensuring its place in both literary and operatic canon.
There are several public domain English translations of “The Nose,” including Claude Field’s found in the collection at Project Gutenberg. Translations in the piece are the author’s own.