are you just happy to see me? Bornstein in The Nose.
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,
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
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!
Play’s the Thing
Mines of Sulphur
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
Must Try Mine Sometime
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
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
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
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
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
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.