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October 21, 2004

Gogol in St. Petersburg

Posted by David Conway

Revisor (The Government Inspector) by Nikolai Gogol, at the Alexandrinsky Theatre, directed by Valeri Fokine
10th October 2004

Nos (The Nose) by Dmitri Shostakovich, based on the short story by Gogol, at the Mariinsky Theatre, conducted by Pavel Smelkov
14th October 2004

As Anthony Daniels wrote recently for the SAU (quoting that well-known Russian poet Emily Dickinson):

One of the greatest literatures of all time, the Russian of the Nineteenth Century, was produced in conditions of censorship, albeit capricious and unpredictable. It may well be that Russian literature achieved its universality because of the allegorical nature sometimes forced upon it, and the need to approach matters obliquely:
"Tell all the truth but tell it slant -
Success in circuit lies..."

This tradition of course persisted in Russia throughout the twentieth century and is continuing to manifest itself, under the present bizarre version of 'democracy', in the twenty-first. And indeed some artists, such as for example Shostakovich, have built a critical reputation by never making it entirely clear whether they identified more with their official foreground or their private hinterland. This balancing act, which for two hundred years and more has been a necessity for survival, has now become the quintessence of the interface between artist and audience in Russia - both are part of a joint conspiracy.

There is consequently a significant difference between audiences in Russia and the West; for the former, any work of art is automatically likely to be assessed, at least subliminally, for its politics, (in a wide sense of the word). An audience watching, for example, Mussorgsky's Khovanshchina in London may (if they are lucky) be enjoying a unique operatic masterpiece; an audience in Russia is experiencing a representation of the same conflict of reform, reaction and corruption that existed at the time of Peter the Great, at the time of the composer and is being enacted in real life today, and the personal involvement and identification of the spectators with the issues involved will be tangible.

Two current productions in St. Petersburg of the work of Gogol, his play The Government Inspector and the opera by Shostakovich based on his short story, The Nose, provide reflections of this Russian tradition.

The story of The Government Inspector is as simple and emblematic as a morality play. The establishment figures of a country town abase themselves before a worthless St. Petersburg clerk, Khlestyakov, believing him to be an Inspector sent from St. Petersburg. He exploits them all and scarpers. In the midst of their furious recriminations, the arrival of the real Inspector is announced. Gogol then describes in his text the attitudes that all the characters should strike and maintain in a great frozen silent tableau 'for about a minute and a half', a wonder which I still remember clearly from a London production in my childhood when Paul Scofield played Khlestyakov.

Fokine has based his production of the play on the text as adapted by Meyerhold for his famous Leningrad production of the 1920s. This is certainly a lot snappier than Gogol's original, but the production as a whole suffers, to Western taste, from its excessive 'busyness'. Russian theatre is much more physical than we effete Europeans are used to, and whilst this has benefits in terms of superb ensemble action and movements, it also means that, especially in comedies, people seem forced to be frenetically doing something all the time, or that some superfluous acrobatics or running around are thrown in, disrupting the overall sweep of the action. The consequence is that actors' movements and energy seem to count for more than what we would expect of characterization. It is meaningless of course to 'criticise' this – it is a fundamental difference of cultural tradition. But it does mean that my appreciation of Alexei Devotchenko's whey faced Khlestakov, the burly Yuri Tsurilo who plays his servant Osip and the hysterical Svetlana Smirnova and Elena Zimina, wife and daughter of the Mayor, could not match that of the audience as a whole.

What was however indubitably striking was the audacity of Fokine in creating one coup de thιβtre by undermining and subverting another. For at the end of Gogol's final tableau, the Mayor slowly steps down and, gathering his cronies round him, and, as the lights fade out, launches once again into his speech from near the start of the play, rehearsing how they should deal with the crisis of having an Inspector in town. They are locked into a circle of surviving by brown-nosing the latest political regime to come along – a predicament with which their St. Petersburg audience can easily identify. It is possible indeed that the 'real' Inspector was intended by the Christian mystic in Gogol as a symbol of the Messiah – but nowadays one just expects an endless succession of Khlestyakovs.

For the pathetic townsfolk of The Government Inspector, St. Petersburg is a wonderful ideal. In Fokine's production, as the characters dream of getting there through their fawning, stately columns and mirrors descend from the flies (to be rapidly retracted when they are disillusioned). In The Nose however Gogol gives us St. Petersburg itself as a surreal and threatening environment in which the socialite Major Kovalev may wake up one day and find his proboscis missing and, what is worse, strutting about the city in the guise of an eminent State functionary. To a libretto based very closely on Gogol's text, the 22-year old Shostakovich wrote his first opera which had sixteen performances in 1930 and then vanished until 1974, and has rarely been revived since.

The opera is a virtuoso display by the tyro composer. One will search in vain for the Mahlerian Weltschmerz, or indeed the Haydnesque precision of form, of the more mature Shostakovich: the extravagant music of the opera owes more to the clamour of Mossolov's infamous Soviet tone-poem, The Iron Foundry. But the mass of noise is handled here with far greater wit and purpose. The whole is a relentless and turbulent two-hour scherzo driven by Gogol's nightmare vision. The orchestral interludes between the terse scenes are hectic excursions into a lurid city, full of muggers, religious hysterics, murderous traffic, whores, beggars, extravagance and corruption – again, as in the days of the author, the composer and the audience. (St. Petersburg is simultaneously, I hasten to add, a city of beauty, charm and romance – its contrasts are the keys to its spell). Moments of lyrical repose are rare and always auto-destruct – most notably the almost-folk-song of Kovalev's servant Ivan (Mikhail Latyshev), which ends with an intriguing duet for balalaika and musical saw, and the para-Tchaikovskian outpourings of Kovalev's lady-love and her mother. The Nose (Sergei Semishkur) was an imposing high-tenor of generally Napoleonic demeanour, and the policemen seem to have come straight out of the Keystone Kops – could Shostakovich have watched these Hollywood shorts in old Leningrad? Anyway, they are clearly direct ancestors of the similar bunch of incompetents who provide light(ish) relief in the composer's later opera, the ill-starred Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. And surely I was not alone in feeling that the Police Chief, a weedy character in an enormous greatcoat, hinted at our KGB President.

Full marks for design (Zinovy Margolin) and production (Yuri Alexandrov), which fully match the delirium of the music and the story. Imprinted on my memory is the brilliant passage, accompanying the extended assault for percussion alone between scenes two and three, in which a dancer, cocooned in latex, extends the missing nose from a tiny lump to human size and shape – and also, at the end of scene eight, the lamina, rather like an extended wodge of chewing gum, which the Police Chief peels off the floor after the citizens of the city, chasing the escaping Nose, have jumped on it and pulverised it. The fury and dedication of the orchestra under Pavel Smelkov were exemplary throughout.

When Kovalev (Vladimir Samsonov, making his debut in this role, who sustained an extraordinarily difficult singing part throughout his various misadventures), is finally reunited with his nose, the population, who moments before had been gossiping with extravagant exaggeration about his deformity and the antics and whereabouts of his organ, greet him as if nothing has happened. How accurately Gogol presented his Russia, where remarkable occurrences, even celebrated ones – the October Revolution, Leningrad, glasnost, the economic miracle of Yukos - often turn out never to have taken place. The art of collective forgetting has become in its way a part of Russian collective memory.

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Who played the musical saw in this production of 'The Nose'?
(For those of you who don't know what a musical saw sounds like, I recommend listening to )

Posted by: Michelle at October 24, 2004 01:51 AM

The saw was played by Ivan's (unscripted) girl-friend, who unfortunately is not listed in the programme. She deserved a credit, if not for her virtuosity, then for her good looks.

Posted by: David at October 25, 2004 06:12 PM
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