If you like your political satire with a large helping of whimsy, the Metropolitan Opera's production of Shostakovich's The Nose, in William Kentridge's bold and fanciful staging, provides a fun night at the opera that is full of visual and musical surprises.
Based on Gogol's short story of the same name and following it closely, Shostakovich composed The Nose in 1928 as a springboard for the discordant and atonal music that would mark the rest of his life's work. It is music perfectly tailored to fit the absurdist and surreal yarn of the hapless collegiate assessor Kovalyov, who awakes one morning to find that he has lost his nose.
Kentridge, a South African artist, takes almost a comic-book approach to the Met staging, employing videos, puppetry, old newsreels, and newspaper clippings and headlines, both in Russian and English, to create a montage of visual effects that are in sync with the music and the narrative as Kovalyov crisscrosses 1830's St. Petersburg trying to track down his missing nose.
It is an eye-popping spectacle that audiences around the world will be able to share on Oct. 26 when the Met offers The Nose as part of its Live in HD series in some 1,900 theaters in 64 countries.
The story begins when the barber Ivan Yakovlevich finds a nose in a loaf of bread he is about to eat for breakfast, and recognizes it as that of one of his customers, Kovalyov. Deciding he must get rid of it, he first tries to leave it on the street, but is stopped by a policeman. He then tries to throw it into the Neva, but another policeman is on the bridge.
Policemen seem to be on every corner of Gogol's St. Petersburg, just as they were in Shostakovich's Leningrad, and if there is any theme in the story and the opera it is the hypocrisy of rank and authority, whether in Czarist Russia or Stalinist Soviet Union. And Kentridge, who saw the oppression of apartheid first hand, pulls no punches in his production for the Met as images of Stalin frequently pop up in videos and on the busy backdrops that are constantly changing as the opera moves through its 16 scenes.
Once the Nose takes on a persona of its own, in the guise of a papier-mache puppet of the type one once made for third-grade art class with old newspaper strips, it begins to gallivant around town, going to church, passing itself off as a state councilor, riding in a carriage, putting on airs as though it were a man of rank and title. The outsized proboscis also shows up in silhouette in most of the clever videos that are projected on backdrops, riding on a white horse, pole-vaulting, swimming, and orating.
Shostakovich composed The Nose when he was just 22 years old and it is the first of only two operas he ever wrote. The music ranges from choral ensembles to a jumble of an octet to solos that test the limits of the tenor register. There is a gallop and a polka and a skewed waltz, all of it dissonant and a forerunner of the composer's later symphonies and other works.
A cast of dozens brings it alive. Paulo Szot, a Brazilian baritone, was excellent in the role of Kovalyov, which he created in this 2010 Met production, and the Russian tenor Andrey Popov, who also appeared in the original Met staging, delivered a first-rate performance as the Police Inspector. Alexander Lewis, an Australian tenor, sang the title role well. And in her Met debut, Ying Fang sang the lovely aria in the Kazan Cathedral. Valery Gergiev conducted with a fine appreciation of both story and opera.
At the curtain, one could only concur with one of the signs on the scrim that greeted the audience: "Another Kheppi Ending."