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The opera was written between 1927 and 1928. The libretto is by Shostakovich, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Georgy Ionin, and Alexander Preis. Shostakovich stated it was a satire on the times of Alexander I. The plot concerns a St. Petersburg official whose nose leaves his face and develops a life of its own.
Gogol's original work was expanded by borrowing from some of his other works, including "The Overcoat", "Marriage", "Diary of a Madman", and "Dead Souls" as well as "The Brothers Karamazov" (1881) by Dostoevsky. The latter occurs in Act II, Scene 6 where Kovalev returns home to find Ivan singing. The song is Shostakovich's setting of the words of Part 2, Book 5, Chapter 2 of Karamazov, where the lackey, Smerdiakov sings to his neighbour Mariia Kondratevna.
An invisble force ties to my beloved. Bless us, O Lord, her and me! Her and me! I'll give up a king's crown, if my beloved is happy. Bless us, O Lord, her and me! Her and me!
Shostakovich uses a montage of different styles, including folk music, popular song and atonality. The apparent chaos is given structure by formal musical devices such as canons and quartets, a device taken from Alban Berg's Wozzeck.
According to the British composer Gerard McBurney writing for Boosey & Hawkes "The Nose is one of the young Shostakovich’s greatest masterpieces, an electrifying tour de force of vocal acrobatics, wild instrumental colours and theatrical absurdity, all shot through with a blistering mixture of laughter and rage... The result, in Shostakovich’s ruthlessly irreverent hands, is like an operatic version of Charlie Chaplin or Monty Python... despite its magnificently absurd subject and virtuosic music, The Nose is a perfectly practical work and provides a hugely entertaining evening in the theatre."
In June 1929, The Nose was given a concert performance, against Shostakovich's own wishes: "The Nose loses all meaning if it is seen just as a musical composition. For the music springs only from the action...It is clear to me that a concert performance of The Nose will destroy it." Indeed, the concert performance caused bewilderment, and was ferociously attacked by the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians (RAPM).
The original plan was to mount a stage production at the Bolshoi Theatre under the direction of Vsevolod Meyerhold, but plans fell through because Meyerhold was too busy with other productions. The stage premiere, conducted by Samuil Samosud, took place at the Maly Operny Theatre in Leningrad on 18 January 1930. It opened to generally poor reviews and widespread incomprehension amongst musicians. Even so, the conductor Nikolai Malko, who had taught Shostakovich at the Leningrad Conservatory and conducted the premiere of his pupil's First Symphony, reckoned the opera a "tremendous success"; indeed it was given 16 performances with two alternating casts over six months.
The opera was not performed again in the Soviet Union until 1974, when it was revived by Gennady Rozhdestvensky and Boris Pokrovsky. Interviewed for a 2008 documentary, Rozhdestvensky related that he had found an old copy of The Nose in the Bolshoi Theatre in 1974, supposedly the last copy in the Soviet Union. The composer attended the rehearsal and premiere in 1974.
The opera received its United States professional premiere at The Santa Fe Opera in 1965, conducted by Erich Kunzel  and was performed again by the Santa Fe company in 1987, conducted by Edo de Waart. It was performed in July 2004, at Bard College's, SummerScape in Annandale-on-Hudson NY, directed by Francesca Zambello and performed by the American Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leon Botstein.
The opera was staged at Opera Boston in early 2009, and at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City in March 2010. Audio recordings of Metropolitan Opera performances are usually made available over the Internet to subscribers on the Met Player. This production was revived in 2013, and was beamed to cinemas around the world as part of the Metropolitan Opera's "Live in HD" programme on 26 October.
flute (doubling piccolo, alto flute), oboe (doubling cor anglais), clarinet (doubling piccolo clarinet, A clarinet, bass clarinet), bassoon(doubling contrabassoon), horn, trumpet (doubling cornet), trombone, triangle, tambourine, castanets, tamburo, tom-tom, ratchet, cymbals, bass drum, snare drum, tam-tam, glockenspiel, tubular bells, Xylophone, Flexatone, small domra, alto domra, balalaika, whistle, hammering sound, harp, piano, violin, viola, cello, contrabass
Opera in 3 Acts and 10 Scenes, without intermission
St Petersburg. Kovalev, a Collegiate Assessor is being shaved by Ivan Yakovlevich (a barber). He is one of Yakovlevich's regular customers.
The next morning, Yakovlevich finds a nose in his bread. His wife, believing he has cut off one of his customers' noses, requests him to dispose of it. He tries to dispose of it in the street, but is foiled by running into people he knows, then he throws it into the Neva River, but he is seen by a police officer and taken away for questioning. Meanwhile Kovalyov wakes and finds his nose missing. His first reaction is disbelief, then shock, and he sets out to find it. He later sees his nose praying in the Kazan Cathedral, now the size of a human being. Since the nose has acquired a higher rank (State Councillor) than he, it refuses to have any dealings with him, and leaves.
In his search, Kovalyov finds himself at the Chief of Police's apartment, but he is not at home. Next he visits the newspaper office to place an advertisement about the loss of his nose, where they are dealing with a missing dog. After explaining his loss, his request is refused on the grounds of the newspaper's reputation. Upon demonstrating his loss, the clerk suggests he tell his story. Kovalyov feels insulted and leaves.
He returns to his apartment, where his servant is playing the balalaika, he dismisses him and wallows in self-pity.
The police take up the search. A group of policemen are at a railway station, in order to prevent the nose from escaping, where an inspector rallies them. The nose runs in and tries to stop the train, and a general pursuit ensues, resulting in its capture. The nose is then beaten into its normal size, wrapped and returned to Kovalyov by the inspector, but Kovalyov is unable to reattach it. Nor can a doctor. He then suspects that he has been placed under a spell by a woman called Madame Podtochina, because he would not marry her daughter. He writes to ask her to undo the spell, but she misinterprets the letter as a proposal to her daughter. She convinces him that she is innocent. In the city, crowds fuelled by rumours gather in search of the nose till the police restore order.
Kovalyov wakes up with his nose reattached, and dances a polka in joy. Yakovlevich has been released from prison and arrives to shave him. Afterwards Kovalyov wanders along Nevsky Prospekt greeting acquaintances, while people discuss the story.