March 01, 2009

Dead Souls for Two Metronomes

“There’s nothing more elevated,” wrote Nikolai Gogol, “than the effect on a person of a perfectly coordinated harmony of parts, which has so far only been heard in a single orchestra.” Gogol was not only a great writer, but also musical. He knew how to read music, and felt it intensely. His best works are remarkably musical, and many of them inspired masterpieces by composers such as Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Shostakovich, Shchedrin, and Schnittke.

Recently, opera diva Galina Vishnevskaya decided to mark the 200th anniversary of Gogol’s birth in a unique way. On the eve of the celebration, her Opera Center in Moscow staged an unusual performance based on themes from key “Gogolian” operas. The production, entitled Marriage and Other Horrors, was staged by Vladimir Mirzoev, the renowned stage director of the Mariinsky Theater. In her own words, Vishnevskaya wanted to present a “unique kaleidoscope” of Gogolian opera. The performance opened with Mussorgsky’s unfinished opera Marriage. Mussorgsky had attempted to set the text of Gogol’s story to music exactly as it was written. (Shostakovich would attempt the same thing in the following century with The Gamblers, and would also leave the work unfinished). The second act was a witty pastiche of selections from Rimsky-Korsakov’s operas May Night and Christmas Eve, Tchaikovsky’s The Slippers, Mussorgsky’s Sorochintsy Fair, and Shostakovich’s The Nose, each based upon a famous short story by Gogol. The varying scenes, arias, and duets were presented as if dreamed by Agafya Tikhonovna, the fiancée in Marriage, forming a second act.

The production thus was able to include — even fragmentarily — almost all the operas based on Gogol, up to and including Shostakovich’s [1930] The Nose, which deserves particular attention. While the operas by Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Tchaikovsky are interesting on their own merits, they don’t add much to our understanding of Gogol’s works. The Nose is different, however. In it, the twenty-one year old Shostakovich managed to create a masterpiece that is truly akin to Gogol’s text. During the Soviet period, scholars usually categorized Gogol’s prose as “critical realism.” Yet Gogol as no one else managed to penetrate the melancholy absurdity of life in Russia, where literally anything under the sun can happen.

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