“The nose” – Kirill Serebrennikov’s Munich Shostakovich

Witz, satire, irony and deeper meaning. Also fiery riot, sound sparks, tone beacons. All of this is “The Nose”, the maddened youth opera prank of the only 24-year-old Dmitri Shostakovich from 1930 according to the even more daring civil servant and male dignity parable of the Nikolai Gogol from 1836. The tsarist empire and the still young USSR are whisked together with a bitter flash in one stroke.

Hardly anything of this thoroughly grim humor potential appears in the almost two hours with which a huge, purely Russian team at the Bavarian State Opera opens the new director era of Serge Dorny. Even Vladimir Jurowski conducts its first premiere as general music director with the opera, which has never been performed here before.

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At the end of the screen, Kirill Serebrennikov, who is currently Russia’s most famous art justice case, bows from Moscow. The film, theater, opera and dance director convicted of alleged embezzlement after a spectacular trial still does not have a passport.

He cannot leave the country and has to continue to stage remotely via video and translation. “Free Kirill”, his large team on site is still ostentatiously on the T-shirt.

The spatial distance, the haptic absence. That will probably also be the reason that this “nose” is initially somewhat woodcut and mechanical on the Serebrennikov stage.

It has nothing to do with Gogol

It’s a gloomy, icy box with a grating on it. Piles of snow everywhere, flakes falling, fishermen fishing human parts out of the ice water. Russia, gray, angry mother. Only rarely illuminated by nasty neon advertising, cheap Christmas bling bling.

With Gogol’s exaggerated novella from St. Petersburg by the inflated college assessor Kowaljow, who loses his nose while shaving (of course, this also means a body part located below the belt) and who loses his social position while his now self-sufficient olfactory bulb rises to the State Council, this new staging has not much to do.

And not with the futuristic-communist opera discussions that directors like to quote, such as Dmitri Shostakovich, who was infected by the Meyerhold virus “The nose” highly controversial but successfully shot in the face.

Kirill Serebrennikov on “The Nose”

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This Munich stage Russia is everywhere: a grim, cruel police state, where cardboard snow clearers already promise danger, drum troops rush forward as percussion patrols threateningly with headlights, in which Kovalev delinquents also cut off what defines them while in custody: the face bay.

You don’t have just one nose here, the higher you stand in the nomenclature, the more you get. These actually disfigured people look like deformed Francis Bacon monsters.

But when Kowaljow loses his nose and the fatsuit, which is also grotesquely padded, an individual peeks out from underneath: naked and honest. What is life threatening. The human being as I, possibly thinking, not just executing orders, is actually not intended here.

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Kovalev wants his nose again, which is now gathering supporters as an extreme screaming politician. At some point she will be back. But Kovalyov is no longer happy, cutting off the nose is hardly fun anymore. He stumbles home drunk with vodka in a carnival hat into the prefabricated building, which is only alive as a movie fantasy on dead walls.

Not a pretty sight. To empty sounds from Shostakovich’s eighth string quartet. In the upper right window someone hangs himself, a girl’s red balloon bursts. And the sobbing Kovalyov, now more of Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunow” god-fool, could also moan: “Cry, poor Russia, cry.”

It’s not funny anymore. That is nihilistic, darkly pessimistic, cynical; no hope, no fury, nowhere. The very one-sided story goes by rather leisurely and monochrome. This hundred minutes actually consists of furious film-like scenes, rolling interludes, weird parodies, wild percussion orgies, radically refined rhythms, nasty fugues and loud noise arranged as lustful chaos.

The state orchestra masters everything

It is important to give it a form, both visually and acoustically. But even Vladimir Jurowski, who allowed some scenic changes, remains cautious for the time being: lurking calm, relentlessly sharing disparate disharmonies, carefully branching out into peripheral polyphony.

The noise from whistles, shrill brass, singing saws and string ostinati will slowly increase willfully. The quiet areas are of course given contour and depth as a contrast. The Bavarian State Orchestra masters it as if it were a children’s music game.

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Even the often asked vocal ensemble, driven into the most uncomfortable positions, including the willing choir, sings and screams everything seemingly effortlessly. Some big names are among the 77 mini-games: Boris Pinkhasovich, who as Kowaljow tears the evening vocal and acting, Sergei Leiferkus as a barber, Laura Aikin, Gennady Bezzubenkov, the wonderfully present Doris Soffel as an old lady, waving in the Coffin carried away, Anton Rositskiy as nose, Alexandra Durseneva, Mirjam Mesak, Tansel Akzeybek. All of them, of course, remain just bogeymen and bang-bang batches.

Again and again, however, it becomes clear that the Zoom direction is just a rough knit, that the juvenile piece of the cheeky bung Shostakovich, which was banned for 45 years in Russia after its premiere, often runs out of breath that the narrative threads loosen up.

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Russian theatre and film director Kirill Serebrennikov speaks to the media after a court hearing in Moscow, Russia, Monday, April 8, 2019. The Moscow City Court on Monday overturned a district court's decision to extend house arrest for Kirill Serebrennikov, and ordered him freed on his own recognizance until his trial. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)

The colorful, shimmering Anarcho-Radau mutates this time into a black dystopia. Understandable from the biased, concerned Serebrennikov perspective, but also a bit one-sided.

The satire, which is wildly and willfully violating all art conventions, is not only overdrawn like a comic, nor does it fall into the sweet honey trap of the usual constructivist look of expressionist Soviet design. Instead, it serves as a brutal Munich settlement with the high-ranking gentlemen in Moscow and in the church, who have been harassing Kirill Serebrennikov for years.

Shostakovich with a mean meaningful substructure, but without revolt glitter, paranoia and castration fear. As the acclaimed opening opus of a new artistic director, this engaging and tiring “nose” is extremely person-intensive and time-consuming, but unfortunately also somewhat off-putting. The applause was only warming up slowly, and it was gone too quickly. The Dorny team still has plenty of room for opera in Munich.

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