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SJOG Travelers

The Nose at the Met is the hit of the year,
but Verdi’s Attila proved to be a strike out.
By Mort Levine

A recent jam-packed week of sampling energy-packed midtown Manhattan’s cultural delights resulted in a jolting stimulus to the imagination, a kaleidoscope of visual imagery and a yearning for the tranquility of suburban Saratoga.

Focal point of the trip was to experience first hand the most intriguing production the Met has done in years. The Nose by the 22- year-old Dimitri Shostakovich is an anti establishment poke in the eye of authority figures as shaped by the absurdist satirical short story by Nicolai Gogol in the early 19th century. The music itself is spiky and jazzy with riffs that in themselves would result in a 50-year banning of the opera after its premiere. But in this show, its the visual aspects that are so dazzling and which thus made those who caught the earlier radio broadcast deservedly angry. It wasn’t included in the HD movie series this year.

The visuals were done in an idiosyncratic form,which paid tribute to the Dada movement and the Constructivist artists of the 1920s, are the creation of South African artist William Kentridge, director of this production. Kentridge has an absurdist note to much of his work which covers animation and paintings. The NY Museum of Modern Art currently has a big Kentridge show on view.

The story is of a minor official who wakes up one morning missing his nose. While it goes off by itself, having grown to six feet tall, the official attempts to climb the ladder of bureaucracy to get some help in retrieving it. The shabby treatment he gets from those in power obviously didn’t sit well with his targets.

However there are just enough loony antics and comic turns, coupled with the excellent voices of the principals and a cast of about 70 characters to keep the audience enraptured. Baritone Paul Szot, who "lost" his nose, still sang with brilliance. He also just starred as Emile deBecque in the new revival of South Pacific.

Oddly, the other opera we chose to see proved to be a tiresome mid-career Verdi work, Attila, where the set was entrusted to a Swiss architectural firm which did the de Young in San Francisco. They seemingly had no idea of what a staging needed to be to work for the singers. Instead they provided a huge batch of broken concrete which supposedly represented what ruination Attila was bringing on the Romans. Costuming by the same firm was equally wrong.

The remarkable cast did their best [even though] hamstrung by the sets and the early Verdi practice of lots of cabalettas with their triple reprises of the key melodic lines. A splendid bass voice of Ildar Abdrazakov of Ufa, Russia, brought a sensitive characterization to his role. The love interest, Roman princess Odabella, was well sung by Lithuanian soprano Violeta Urmana.

In seeing Attila, we missed out on a much hailed Faerie Queen by Henry Purcell which was at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Earlier in the week, a late arriving plane kept us from seeing Ricky Ian Gordon’s Grapes of Wrath, a contemporary opera done semistaged at Carnegie Hall.

The New York visitor need not fret, however. Some great theater both on and off Broadway is going forth. We recommend Red (about painter Mark Rothko) and God of Carnage (a comedy that goes Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe one better) plus a lot of fantastic museum shows. Exhausting as it is, a brief bite of the Big Apple really is worth it.

(SJOG Newsletter May, 2010)

Read past "Travelers" in the Archives


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