Dmitri Shostakovich’s 1930 satiric opera, “The Nose,” makes its overdue Met debut in a dazzling production by South African artist William Kentridge that was worth the 80-year wait. Filling the huge Met stage with elaborate animated projections inspired by Constructivist propaganda (with a nod to Meyerhold, Eisenstein and Vertov) the director effectively sends us hurtling back to the era of the opera’s premiere. Intricately wedding his propulsive visuals to Shostakovich’s playful, cacophonous score, Kentridge evokes that heady decade after the Russian Revolution when that country was exploding with a newfound artistic freedom that would prove all too short-lived.
Shostakovich’s first opera is a satiric, absurdist work based on a Gogol story that anticipates the world of Kafka. Kovalyov, a Collegiate Assessor, awakens one morning to find his nose missing. Inadvertently shaved off by Kovalyov’s barber, it takes on a life of its own, rising in station above Kovalyov himself in the strict class strata of 1830s St. Petersburg.
After a series of humiliations at the hands his own nose and the society that surrounds him, Kovalyov is finally able to track down the AWOL schnoz, reattach it, and resume a more-or-less normal life.
Shostakovich accompanies this phantasmagorical tale with a complex score that is by turns jocular, assaultive and poignant. Although the opera overstays its welcome a bit — it is here performed not in the original three acts, but as one long two-hour show with no break — there is never a sense of dullness.
Shostakovich consistently engages his audience, and Kentridge — currently the subject of an ex- hibition at the Museum of Modern Art — enhances that engagement.
His production fairly bursts off the stage, delighting the eye with an incessantly allusive flow of projected images, including animated silhouettes and found footage from the early days of the Soviet Union.
Kentridge largely eschews the use of the Met’s seat-back titling system, preferring instead to project the somewhat spare translation onto various parts of the stage — sometimes as subtitles in foreign-film style, sometimes as graphic intertitles reminiscent of silent movies.
By setting the action not in Gogol’s time, but in a stylized version of the 1920s, Kentridge makes giddy, glorious use of the always-fresh Constructivist aesthetic, which was at its peak at the time Shostakovich was composing this opera. Sabine Theunissen collaborated with Kentridge on the arresting sets; Greta Goiris created the deliriously exaggerated 1920s costumes.
Shostakovich utilizes a chamber orchestra for this piece; conductor Valery Gergiev succeeds in making it sound Met-sized while still preserving the consistent comic tone. There are no less than 78 individual singing parts in this opera, many of which are doubled and tripled by a finely tuned cast of singing actors.
Baritone Paulo Szot, the Tony-winning Emile de Becque of Lincoln Center’s “South Pacific” revival, makes his Met debut in the leading role of Kovalyov. His handsome, burnished voice does not always easily fill the Met’s vast space, but he succeeds in delivering a compelling, multifaceted serio-comic performance.
In the much smaller but telling roles of the Police Inspector and the Nose itself, Andrei Popov and Gordon Gietz — also making Met debuts — wield their piercing high-tenor voices strongly. Others standouts in the cast include soprano Erin Morley, who is given the few truly beautiful passages of the score; and mezzos Theodora Hanslowe and Barbara Dever.
This production is a fine example of the Met working at peak form. But its overriding brilliance belongs to Kentridge, who will undoubtedly be making his mark in opera for years to come.