by Dmitri Shostakovich
Directed by William Kentridge
Conducted by Valery Gergiev
Metropolitan Opera, New York City
With Paulo Szot (Kovalyov), Andrei Popov (Police Inspector), Gordon Gietz (The Nose)
Dmitri Shostakovich was 22 years old when he composed The Nose, and it shows – the comic three-act opera, based on an absurdist story by nineteenth-century satirist Nikolai Gogol, should be a whimsical flight of fancy that brandishes a sardonic edge and skewers social hierarchy and bureaucracy in St. Petersburg, a ridiculous metropolis awash with sanctimony and paranoia. But the work, laboring beneath Shostakovich’s jagged, dissonant style, is regrettably bloated and unfocused. It turns an inspired sketch into a pastiche of incoherent elements that showcase the young, brilliant composer’s free-reigning imagination, but also his gleeful neglect of structure and mindful storytelling. The opera is a resplendent mess – daring and surreal, but too haphazard to be engaging or make much narrative sense.
In this production, though, a Metropolitan Opera premiere conducted by Valery Gergiev, the main attraction is the design by South African artist William Kentridge. It is a vibrant environment of projected stop-motion animation, graphic odds and ends, charcoal sketches, streaks of red and black, snippets of vintage newspaper and encyclopedia, agitprop slogans in a kitschy font. The dynamic projections, evoking the modernist, avant-garde style of Soviet artists of the 1920s and 30s, take on a mischievous life of their own. At their busiest, eye-candy elements shift and dissemble and transform in mesmerizing ways. A drawing of a dog opens its mouth and barks out headlines. An anthropomorphic nose with legs tries to climb a staircase or ride a tiny bicycle. The nose, having escaped the face of its owner, runs amok in the city. With its sensitive, puppy-dog eyes, the animated nose is the soul of this production, a touching, innocent presence – maybe the first case ever of the most compelling figure in an opera being a cartoon.
The nose certainly upstages Paulo Szot, the Tony-winning baritone who plays the petty bureaucrat Kovalyov, who wakes up one morning to find his nose missing. The vain Kovalyov is a stuffed shirt whose nose is emblematic of his cushy position in the pecking order. Now that he lacks a nasal appendage, his hierarchical security nosedives (yes) and he finds himself on social par with layabouts and degenerates. Higher-ranking civil servants and officers won’t give him the time of day. Desperate, he visits the newspaper office, where they dismiss his request to place an advertisement, and to add insult to injury, offer him snuff. Kovalyov scours the city in search of his runaway nose. It’s a pathetic situation, but Mr. Szot is more adept at Kovalyov’s preening and strutting than expressing abject despair. His bouts of self-pity are more indulgent than convincing, and though his voice soars, his performance felt non-committal on the evening I saw it.
Several vignettes did approach a fun, spirited delirium. At one point, Kovalyov’s manservant, sung by Segei Skorokhodov, strums a folk tune on his balalaika. The music so starkly stands out among Shostakovich’s atonality that this became a rare heartfelt moment. In the following act, a plump lady donut vendor passes through the railway station to hawk her treats and, invoking people to buy, stops the scene cold. It’s unclear whether the policemen leer at the donuts or at her, but it’s an absurd bit that cracked me up. Later, when the renegade nose is finally apprehended, the inspector, played by Andrei Popov, who returns it to the grateful Kovalyov, sings in an impossibly high register. He almost screeches as he hints at a bribe, and it’s just the right mix of satire and surrealism – perfectly calibrated weirdness.
There are certainly moments in which this production reveals the anarchic, edgy, exuberant piece The Nose was probably meant to be. Maybe at half its length, it would be a sharper work, but at two hours, it is tedious and cumbersome in spite of itself. The Nose is the opus of an ambitious, self-indulgent young artist in love with his prodigious talent. My college had senior projects, too, but there’s a reason we didn’t produce them at the Met.