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Or are you just happy to see me? Bornstein in The Nose.

An Ample Proboscis
By Paul Rapp

The Nose
Richard B. Fisher Center, Bard College, July 28

For the centerpiece of this summer’s exploration of Russian performing arts, Bard Summerscape presents Dmitri Shostakovich’s opera The Nose. Simply, it is a bold and triumphant production, and don’t let anyone tell you differently. If you can find tickets available for this weekend’s final performances, go.

Shostakovich wrote the opera in the late 1920s, based on Nikolai Gogol’s goofy allegorical story, at the age of 20. He was fresh out of music school, steeped in and bored by traditional doctrine, inspired by the modern experimental serialist composers, and determined to get his rocks off, creatively speaking. He wrote a riotous score that ditches convention in favor of an almost stream-of-consciousness outpouring of emotional, but knowing sound. A five-minute thundering percussion ensemble is followed by mock-Romantic tenderness, then Schoenberg-like atonalism, then balalaika-driven folk tunes. He shocked and outraged folks in Soviet Russia when the opera debuted, and judging from the narrow and sniveling reviews I’ve read of Bard’s production, he’s still doing it today.

The story goes something like this: A mid-level bureaucrat awakes to find his nose is gone. He finds his nose, posing as a higher-level bureaucrat. The Nose is pretending to be praying in church, but he is actually hitting on babes, who are quite googly over his tumescent protuberance. Bureaucrat tries to find someone in authority to help him get his nose back, and finally convinces the police inspector to help him catch the Nose in the train station. Nose in hand, Bureaucrat has trouble reattaching it, but finally does. Bureaucrat learns nothing from this experience. Fade to black! Gotta love Russian literature!

What made this performance so wonderful—the preview performance, with nary a glitch in sight—was the completeness of all of the elements, and their seamless integration to a unified, albeit twisted, vision. The massive but minimal set (by acclaimed architect Raphael Vigoly) consisted of huge suspended geometric shapes moving about, allowing the visual focus of the activity to shrink or expand as the play progressed. Movable Plexiglas props suggested objects like chairs and beds. The costumes suggested traditional garb, but in an outsized, Technicolor way. The casting was superb; the acting was dead-on, broad to the point of being cartoonish. In fact, the experience was much like watching a huge, surreal, psychedelic cartoon—the unrestrained music, heavy with xylophone and beeping horns, followed the action just like the great Carl Stalling Warner Brothers cartoon scores, disbelief was suspended from the git-go, and the characters, particularly Alexandre Kravets’ Snidely Whiplash-like police inspector, and Leonid Bornstein’s Wimpy-like Nose, were crisp animations brought to life.

Musically, the orchestra and the singers handled the bizarro material with confidence and fire. Every performer (and there were over 40 different soloists!!!) was stellar in voice and action. The packed house laughed out loud from start to finish. Bard’s The Nose rocks. Peculiar? Yes! Vulgar? Gloriously!

The Play’s the Thing

The Mines of Sulphur
Glimmerglass Opera, Aug. 1

The fellow setting up the tale doubles as Braxton, the unseen murder victim, but the actor portraying both will reappear as an actor. That is, as an opera singer portraying an actor who portrays a wealthy nobleman, who returns at the final curtain in his initial guise as the now-bloodied Braxton. And it all weaves easily and plausibly amidst this enjoyably chilling tale of violence, guilt and redemption, or such redemption as can be found in a high gothic tale.

Richard Rodney Bennett’s The Mines of Sulphur (the title is taken from a Shakespeare speech) premiered in 1965, and its musical language reflects the then still-current fascination with 12-tone writing, particularly as dramatically realized by Berg. It’s a bang-up way to heighten moody psychological drama, and thus a natural for this script.

Based on a play by Beverly Cross, who also wrote the libretto, this relatively short work packs a powerful amount of tragedy. Set in a decaying mansion on a remote moor, we see a pair of crisscrossing staircases and a few black furniture pieces—a terrific design by James Noone—and, at the end, a fiery backlight presaging the tragic finish.

Bonconnion, Rosalind and Tovey have conspired to rob Braxton of his jewels. Seduced by Rosalind (mezzo Beth Clayton), the old man is thus vulnerable when the heartless Bonconnion (tenor Brandon Jovanovich, in a star turn) does him in. There seems to be little difference for Bonconnion between the pleasure of murder and the sensual joy in ravishing Rosalind, but she already is feeling remorse for the act and murmurs a kyrie.

There’s nothing requiring forgiveness, Bonconnion counters, heightening the difference among the three—because Tovey (baritone James Maddalena) is also suffering some guilt.

Enter the players, lost on the moor, their wagon irreparable until morning. In the best gothic tradition they’re given lodging for the night provided they entertain the trio, and—shades of Hamlet!—they catch the conscience of the murderer and his accessories.

Relationships are brilliantly developed, exceeding the kind of cartoon caricature a gothic tale invites. Rosalind is the linchpin of the trio of robbers; it’s she whose regret finally infects the others, and reveals Bonconnion’s brutality. Even Tovey, a comparatively minor character, serves to impede the carnality of the other two.

Similarly, the actress Jenny (soprano Caroline Worra), shyly (but, we learn, plausibly) restrained, tempers the relationship between Bonconnion and Sherrin, the leader of the troupe. Bass-baritone Kristopher Irmiter takes on the many roles described above, at his most visible (and vocal) as the “play” begins and he portrays an old Braxton-like man.

A commedia dell’arte touch is provided by Michael Todd Simpson and Andrew Gorell as, respectively, Tooley and Trim, the latter a non-speaking role for an acrobatic actor. Dressed in the multicolored togs of old-time clowns, they leaven the otherwise relentless drama that seethes beneath the playlet, adding a comedy that only serves to intensify the horror to come.

Even as Bonconnion begins to absorb Rosalind’s doubt, she picks up his urge to murder his way out of problems. And Clayton has some stunning vocal moments along the way. But if there’s a conscience of the piece, it’s Leda, sung by mezzo Dorothy Byrne, whose playlet character, absurd as she is, adds a motherly humanity to the proceedings that inflames incipient guilt.

By the time Bonconnion is moved to join in the kyrie that ends the piece, it’s too late for anything but moral redemption, and thus does the classical gothic tragedy send us to the streets. Just as the play-within-a-play and multiple-role device serves to deconstruct the continuity, so too does the music dig into the turbulent emotional core of the story. Bennett is a superb melodist for whom this style of writing is an appropriate choice for the material—and he pulled it off brilliantly. It’s nothing an orchestra should meddle in casually, so conductor Stewart Robertson and the players deserve nothing but praise. It’s what contemporary opera should be about.

—B.A. Nilsson

You Must Try Mine Sometime

Glimmerglass Opera, July 31

It’s ironic that a spoof of an aesthetic movement should survive more durably than the movement itself. But Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience is the most topical of their many operas, a fact that has worked against its own longevity.

Nevertheless, the spectacle of two tortured poets beloved by the village’s “20 lovesick maidens,” scattering poesy to their adorers remains risible, especially when contrasted with the officers of dragoon guards who used to be the town’s romantic cynosures.

Glimmerglass Opera has a long tradition of G&S productions, which is commendable, but those also can be dangerous waters to navigate. G&S fans tend to be fanatics in the truest sense of the word, prizing particular performances and demanding no less than the same damn thing over and over. To indulge them is dangerous: They encourage the worst excesses of operatic overacting, and there’s nobody in the theatrical pantheon more likely to overact than an opera singer.

Director Tazewell Thompson, whose brilliant work with Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites wowed us two seasons ago, deserves great credit for reimagining Patience in a more unique style than tradition would suggest. His lovesick maidens were never made to seem more ridiculous than the script requires, and the dragoons, too often played as embarrassing bumblers, actually seemed like a military regiment. By today’s standards, anyway.

In their characterizations of the poet Bunthorne and his arch-rival Grosvenor, tenor Jeffrey Lentz and bass Kevin Burdette gave wonderfully true-to-form performances, with skilled voices that made their singing the difficult numbers seem effortless. A highlight of the show in both musical and dramatic terms was their Act 2 dialogue and duet (“When I Go Out of Door”), that also featured the best dance number of the piece.

But here’s where the G&S let’s-overdo-it disease descends. The number was given an unspontaneous encore, and fell apart as the duo exceeded their dancing ability. Unfortunately, there’s an audience contingent that always will cheer aggressive stumbling.

A choreographer was sorely needed. In the second act trio for the lead dragoons—the Duke (Darren T. Anderson), Colonel Calverly (Jake Gardner) and Major Murgatroyd (Christopher Burchett)—it was clear that only Burchett had real dancing experience. Such an imbalance, embarrassing to watch, could be smoothed by the right dance director. Kudos to Gardner, by the way, for navigating the incredibly tough “If You Want a Receipt for That Popular Mystery,” a patter song so filled with fast-passing bygone references that even the supertitles didn’t try to keep up.

Weakest was soprano Sarah Coburn as the innocent milkmaid Patience. Coburn is a brilliant singer, but never conveyed a credible characterization; I’m going to suggest that she was undone by unsuccessfully trying to affect a lower-class English accent. And the silly running gag she was handed about milk containers belonged in a Bugs Bunny cartoon, not in this production.

Making an effective gag out of stage business is always a difficult challenge, made worse when there’s over a century of “tradition” behind it. Mezzo-soprano Joyce Castle is always a welcome addition to a cast, but as the self-consciously aging Lady Jane she had to open Act 2 with a song sung to her own cello accompaniment, a Sullivanian parody of an Italian opera technique.

Although it’s not required of the singer, Castle actually played the thing and played it fairly well before getting goofy with it, when the arc of a good gag dictates the opposite: She should have finished with triumphant mastery of the instrument.

The set, by Donald Eastman, eschewed the usual verdant grounds of Castle Bunthorne in favor of a bare stage with a large box in the center, one side of which was the house exterior, the other an all-purpose room. It proved distractingly unwieldy.

Andrew Bisantz conducted the orchestra, which couldn’t possibly have sounded better.

—B.A. Nilsson

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