Nose Job

New York

Left: Artist William Kentridge. (Photo: Brian Droitcour) Right: Dina Rose Rivera and Stass Klassen in Dmitri Shostakovich's The Nose. (Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

FEW HOUSES RISK staging Dmitry Shostakovich’s The Nose because of its daunting demands. With more than eighty solo roles in a prickly, jittery score without memorable arias, climactic moments, or juicy soprano roles, the opera is every bit the work of an impish young genius swatting away the limits of an art form. It premiered in 1930, when the composer was twenty-three, and had a run of sixteen performances. A few years later, Shostakovich proved he could master a genre’s conventions just as well as flout them with Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District, a truly operatic tale of adultery across class lines and impassioned murder; it drew huge audiences for two years until a notorious Pravda editorial in 1936 effectively banned it from Soviet stages. The quirks of The Nose ensured its run didn’t last long enough to get such bad press.

I’d only seen The Nose staged once before, at a modestly appointed chamber opera in Moscow, and when I navigated the crowds of furred ladies at the premiere of the Metropolitan’s production on March 5, I felt that something significant was happening. William Kentridge proposed directing The Nose when approached by Met director Peter Gelb, and in hindsight it’s easy to see that Gogol’s Major Kovalyov, a lowly clerk in the imperial government who desperately pursues his runaway nose, is a kindred spirit of Soho Eckstein, the South African lawyer of Kentridge’s animated films––another functionary haunted by an oppressive social hierarchy and random, inexplicable misfortune.

Full of allusions to early Soviet life, Kentridge’s production brushes up against a number of clichés. The idea that the fun-house mirror of Gogol’s writing can reflect the Bolshevik bureaucracy just as vividly as its czarist precedents has been around since Vsevolod Meyerhold’s hotly relevant staging of The Government Inspector in 1926, and the projected animation––with hand-drawn portraits of Stalin and Shostakovich, black-and-white footage of Communist functions, the red crosses of Suprematist painting, and the angled headlines of Constructivist posters––sometimes seems like a salad of things easily identified as Russian. Even prima ballerina Anna Pavlova appears for a spin with her torso topped by a nose.

But the curtain’s collage of newsprint from different eras and countries sets up more diffuse layers of reference. Projections scream WRECKERS, SELF-SEEKERS, CAREERISTS!––epithets uncommon in the United States today, but used as much in apartheid-era South Africa as in the Soviet Union of the ’30s. Other text projections on the stage use a half-dozen fonts from Microsoft Office. Rather than setting The Nose in a specific period, Kentridge evokes backward and sidelong gazes––his own, his audience’s, Shostakovich’s––that try to read history through art, by capturing the associations, pertinent or not, that crop up in the process. In doing so, he manages to elicit greater emotional involvement than the harsh score and choppy story line might otherwise have allowed.

Though art-world attendees (including Robert Storr, Adam Weinberg, RoseLee Goldberg, Jeffrey Deitch, Tino Sehgal, and Norman Rosenthal) were vastly outnumbered by the music patrons who frequent Met premieres, the ovation for celebrity conductor Valery Gergiev was dwarfed by the one for the celebrated artist.