James Levine is not the only major return at the Metropolitan Opera this week. Coming back for just seven performances between September 28 and October 26 is one of the Met’s most artistically acclaimed productions in recent years, Shostakovich early, wildly inventive, over-the-top adaptation of Gogol’s classic story, “The Nose.”
Picked by every critic as the best of the year when it was first introduced at the Met in 2010, this production by South African artist William Kentridge features giant papier-mâché and projected film versions of Kentridge’s own extravagantly hooked Jewish schnoz, appearing as Gogol’s eponymous proboscis running loose in Moscow. Both the opera and this production are a breathtaking, risk-taking adventure.
Gogol’s story manifestly resists dramatization, so Kentridge faced quite a challenge adapting it for the stage. His antic vision — half-Constructivist and half-Dada — had distractions across every vertical and horizontal inch of the stage. Normally so many disparate gambles would careen apart into shambles, but this was the exceptional success — perhaps because Shostakovich did the same thing with the music. Kentridge’s opening gambit brilliantly shows what he’s up to: During the opera’s introduction, the mysterious shadows of a slowly turning machine appear to be flying apart with pieces reaching the far edges of the stage-screen, only to coalesce suddenly into a stunning line-drawing portrait of Shostakovich. That combination of wildness and precision embodies the whole production.
Shostakovich’s nose-thumbing score (this was composed in 1928 before the Stalinist censorship and terror) bristles with attitude, including wild shifts of technique and tone. Conductor Valery Gergiev is again conducting the first four of the seven performances. Last time he brilliantly managed to get the Met orchestra and singers to ride this roller coaster while hanging on for dear life.
A wall comes to life. Arms appear in what had seemed like empty black suits hanging on them. The seven actors in the company, in evening dress, whom we’ve seen singing, playing with pieces of paper, join hands with the arms. Together the actors and the limbs on the wall do a kind of Hora. Later, a 17-foot high puppet of a babushka embraces, and menaces, a little clown. The clown is composer Dmitry Shostakovich. It’s like something from Dr. Seuss. It’s like a dream.
Though there are words in Dmitry Krymov’s “Opus No. 7,” both in the first part, titled “Genealogy,” and in the second act titled “Shostakovich,” much of the work’s punch lands through other kinds of theatrical language. Even the title evokes a piece of classical music, and the abstraction of painting.
The number 7 also refers to the seven members of the cast: Maxim Maminov, Mikhail Umanets, Sergey Melkonyan, Arkady Krichenko, Natalia Gorchakova, Maria Gulik and Varvara Voetskova. Krymov said in an email that it is also his favorite number. It is also Krymov’s seventh work. Another notable 7 is that Shostakovich’s seventh symphony was about war, Krymove pointed out.
On October 12, Paris’s Cité de la Musique opened a new exhibit, “Lenin, Stalin, and Music” which includes much fascinating material about the fate, and often the plight, of Russian Jewish musicians.
With the benefit of hindsight it’s difficult to see why any Jews stayed in Soviet Russia. However, a brilliantly concise and well-illustrated exhibition catalog published by Les éditions Fayard accompanies the show, explaining why some gifted Jewish composers such as Maximilian Steinberg and the pianist/composer Samuil Feinberg, at first embraced the opportunities afforded them to create new music in post-Revolutionary Russia.