In Nikolai Gogol's 1835 novella Nevsky Prospekt, the grand boulevard of St. Petersburg figures as a character of its own. It paints a colorful picture of a bustling promenade, a shopping area full of entertainment, which changes in nature and color every hour of the day and night, according to the people who populate it, such as officials, officers, nannies, students, displaced persons or prostitutes.
Czar Peter the Great founded Saint Petersburg around 1700. The city was built in a swamp near the Neva, as a ‘window to the west’ and a port to Europe. Russia needed to orient itself more toward that continent in effort to modernize itself. With that, the city - which was laid out entirely as planned - has always maintained something artificial, in contrast to authentic Moscow.
In the years 1710-1711, construction began on Nevsky Prospekt, the connection between the Nevsky bank with the Admiralty and the Alexander Nevsky monastery outside the city. It was to be a long, straight perspective alley. The Nevsky, however, makes a kink, because people started building on two sides, and when they met, each appeared to have taken a slightly different direction. Then the boulevard was built with the most beautiful facade architecture. Overwhelming, but often with an empty interior and exterior.
Anyone walking along Nevsky Prospekt in 2021 can in fact have the same experiences as Gogol had some two hundred years ago. Although the boulevard was also a central shopping and entertainment street during the Soviet period, it naturally lacked the luster of the past. The lavish architecture thus became even more of a hollow facade. City palaces turned into residential barracks, luxury stores into morose stores with long lines in front of them. After the fall of the Wall in 1989 and the liquidation of the Soviet Union two years later, Nevsky Prospekt was transformed into a parade route of Western capitalism and nouveau riche culture. Rich and poor still mingle there, as do those who sell their bodies. Appearances shine as never before.
After the detailed description of the street, Gogol shifts the perspective to two young men, Piskarjov and Pirogov, who meet on Nevsky and then see two ladies walking. Piskarjov is a hopelessly romantic student, who pursues a beautiful young woman and wants to court her, but then finds out that she is a prostitute. Unable to give up his idealized image, he dreams of her as he wishes she would be. In turn, the down-to-earth officer Pirogov chases after a beautiful blond German woman, who turns out to be married. Only after a severe beating does he come to his senses.
There are two different kinds of love at play in the story. The pathetic, romantic, idealized one of Piskarjov, where Gogol was clearly inspired by the tales of E.T.A. Hoffmann. In them, men often fall tragically in love with unattainable or nonexistent women. But both men, including the sober Pirogov, chase a phantom. One undergoes this tragically, the other resignedly. Both share the male gaze versus female independence, as both the prostitute and the German woman pull their own plan. Both confront us with the question to what extent we too confuse our dreamed projections with reality.
Using Gogol's means - tragicomic and ironic - in this performance there is an interaction between the woman and the two men, who are also the two pianists. The actress is the narrator and at the same time the muse or unattainable lover of Piskarjov ánd Pirogov. Two historical grand pianos are on stage, with one pianist playing music by Shostakovich, representing Piskarjov, and the other playing lighter and improvised music, representing Pirogov.
Shostakovich's music, mainly from his Preludes and Fugues and some movements from his ballets, was chosen for several reasons. The composer was born in St. Petersburg in 1906 and lived around and around Nevsky. In the 1920s, when the city was called Petrograd, he made his living as a youngster playing the piano in cinemas and other entertainment venues, including cinemas on Nevsky. On the street is also the city's Philharmonic, where Shostakovich often came, played and was played, the wry highlight being his famous Leningrad Symphony No. 7 during the siege of the city by the Germans, but earlier also his Symphony No. 1 from 1926. Furthermore, the composer was a lover of Gogol's oeuvre, which resulted in, among other things, his first opera The Nose, which plays partly on the Nevsky. Both artists play with irony and humor in the same virtuoso manner.
For both, the bitter downside of that irony also applies. Shostakovich had to maintain himself in St. Petersburg-Petrograd-Leningrad amid the threat of World War I, the revolutionary chaos of 1918, World War II, the Stalin terror and the Brezhnev depression. Gogol came to the city as a young man, but never really found his place there. He died young and tragically. In a famous letter to his mother, he outlined his own failure, his own confusion between dream and reality, and his own passion for that unattainable woman.
Willem Bruls, concept and direction
Evert de Cock, scenery, lighting and video
Loes Wouterson, actress
Hannes Minnaar, Rembrandt Frerichs, piano