William Kentridge Nose Opera

03/10/2010 4:00 PM |

Met debuts mark the opera company's current production of The Nose: from the creative crew to the cast, most of those involved in this iteration of Shostakovich's opera (itself making its Met debut) are working with the institution for the first time. Which seems fitting, as it departs radically from opera house norms; it would seem to require outsiders to devise and execute such a deviant work. Bringing the downtown avant-garde sensibility to the oft-staid halls of uptown, The Nose transcends the limits of standard staging—not by palely mimicking cinema, as stage directors do too often, but by nearly fashioning an entirely new medium by blending other forms. Opera, of course, has always been about the mixture of media, the juxtaposition of music and theater. But William Kentridge, the South African visual artist with a retrospective currently at the MoMA, concocts new combinations here: music and theater, yes, but also animations, light shows, sculpture, collage. It's like watching animation performed live, seeing an art instillation brought to life.

The work is ripe for such radical reinventions: composed in 1928 when the Russian neo-classical post-Romantic was only 22, The Nose defies many of the art form's conventions. It boasts over seventy individual singing roles, crams 16 different scenes into three acts (performed in under two hours without intermission), and features what many regard as one of the earliest drum solos not just in opera but in Western music. (Er, music for "percussion ensemble," that is.) Like that percussive digression, Shostakovich's score is almost relentlessly hammering, its cacophony only occasionally broken, usually by moments of musical pastiche: a religious choral, an aria bella. The rest of the music is nuts: the central tenor's role is written so high up the register that the singer (Andrei Popov here) sounds like he's always screaming and squealing. Several characters break into caninophony: the barber's wife (Claudia Waite) who yelps like a hungry puppy, the newspapermen who laugh like barking dogs. One character laughs on pitch. (Valery Gergiev, one of the few old Met hands on hand, conducts.)

The sharp angles of the scoring match the crooked logic of the libretto (by Shostakovich, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Georgi Ionin and Alexander Preis). Based on the well-known 1837 Gogol short story of the same name, the opera revolves around Kovalyov (Paul Szot, a clear and strong singer with a cracking dramatic edge, a baritone best known in this town for his Tony-winning turn in Bartlett Sher's South Pacific revival), a collegiate assessor who awakes one morning to find that he has no nose. Agitated and terrified, he hits the streets to search for it, eventually locating it in a church, where it is the size of a man, and dressed in a uniform that indicates a higher rank than his. (Ha!) He looks for help from various municipal authorities, who don't believe his wacky claims until they see his schnozless visage. Eventually, an unruly mob forms to hunt the nose, which is found, beaten, shrunken, and returned to Kovalyov; to his dismay, however, it "won't stick."

It's a darkly comic tale filled with angst and humiliation, emotions reflected in the music's unease and bolstered by the features of Kentridge's production: cramped sets with floors and ceilings out of plumb, manic animations (often depicting the adventures of the gadabout proboscis) projected onto the stage, flashing lights, grotesques in shadow, sets papered in what look like vandalized encyclopedia pages and propaganda, portraits defaced in the nasal region. Together, they produce a macabre parade of anxiety, a barrage of stimuli that's ultimately difficult to process (let alone to describe!): should I be taking in the music? The singers? The animations? The sets? The light shows? The choristers? Because it seems impossible to deal with all the elements at once.

If Kentridge, who received a standing ovation from much of the opening night audience (he was treated as more Chereau than Bondy), deserves any criticism here, it's that his production feels cluttered—that, though he produces the atmosphere of dread suggested by the music, he does so by suffocating the score with his manic medleys. Still, overstimulation is not exactly an unforgiveable fault; it makes me want to see the show again. This is still the first season Met director Peter Gelb planned entirely on his own, and if productions like this and From the House of the Dead are any indication of the Met's future, the next several years promise to be exciting—with much more to take in, finally, than just the dead hand of Franco Zeffirelli.

(photo credit: Ken Howard, Metropolitan Opera)