In 1835 and 1836, Nikolai Gogol wrote a story called The Nose, about a man who wakes up one morning to find that his nose has gone missing in the night. 92 years later, during the years 1927 and 1928, Dmitri Shostakovich composed an opera called The Nose, based on Gogol’s story, which, after its première in 1930, received mostly negative reviews as well as an outcry from the RAPM (Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians). The opera would not be performed in the Soviet Union again until 44 years after that, in 1974. And 36 years after that, The Nose would see its Met Opera première under the baton of Valery Gergiev in a 2010 production directed and designed by William Kentridge.

© Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera
© Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera

This production was reprised for the 2013 season and makes for excellent excitement on the Met stage. Somehow, the absurdities of the story, music, and production – spanning nearly 200 years – unite to create an experience that is just absurd enough to work. It probably sounds ridiculous: a man wearing a human-size nose costume prancing across the stage; lines like “Your hands stink” translated from Russian to English and then projected in whimsical font onto the set; unreliable “narrators” who shrug and acknowledge the implausibility of the plot itself; xylophones plunking out notes like eccentric little fish in an ocean of atonality and folksy, wondrous melodies.

But under the direction of Mr Kentridge and Luc De Wit, recent technology is used to enhance the story. The illogical sequence of events is situated in the time of Shostakovich rather than Gogol, with Soviet overtones added to the mix of satire and symbolism. The sets, designed by Mr Kentridge and Sabine Theunissen, are plastered in newsprint and provide a black, white and red backdrop for the sixteen scenes and over 70 sung roles. (Although the opera is short – just shy of two hours – it is as dense as poundcake, as layered as a wedding cake.) The characters, ranging from policemen to a bagel vendor, squabble and stroll and file across the stage in costumes by Greta Goiris. Meanwhile, the collage of newsprint and maps and old footage – including Shostakovich himself at the piano – carries on silently in the background, as if in a visual duet with the humans laughing and singing in the foreground. And every now and then, Mr Kentridge’s whimsically animated shadow-figures take center stage, rotating and morphing into new shapes and weaving new strands of irony with Shostakovich’s music.

The music, composed when Shostakovich was only 22 years old, might seem as nonsensical as the plot if it weren’t so seamlessly bound to every word and gesture in his libretto (co-authored with Yevgeny Zamyatin, Georgy Ionin and Alexander Preis). The unique sounds evoked the humor, confusion and sadness resulting from the disappearance of Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov’s nose. Sung by baritone Paulo Szot (nearly as artful and animated as Mr Kentridge’s collages), Kovalyov quickly transformed from a spirited young man joking with his barber (Vladimir Ognovenko) to a forlorn outcast seeking his identity (via his nose). Also on the search for the nose (played by Alexander Lewis in its terrifying human-size form) was the police inspector (tenor Andrey Popov), whose harsh voice screeched and lurched with self-importance. The voices of these men, and the those of the other numerous characters, sobbed and laughed along with the orchestra, who were performing flawlessly under the baton of Valery Gergiev.

The opera ambled along like Mr Kentridge’s animated horses, never hurrying but constantly distracting you with something new: an interlude in the form of a three-minute-long unpitched percussion solo, a balalaika strummed by Kovalyov’s servant, a xylophone providing comical sound effects for a doctor’s visit. An unconventional canon was sung in the newspaper office by men lazing about the multi-storey set, holding up Cyrillic letters and swinging their feet above the distressed Kovalyov. They refused to post an ad for his lost nose, but did cruelly offer him some snuff before he stormed off. Shostakovich’s notes are transitory but somehow familiar, swimming from the unconventional canon to an equally nontraditional quartet and gamboling through intriguing patches of atonality and tonality without pausing to linger on either one for too long. They plod and scurry along as Kovalyov loses his nose, finds his nose, struggles to attach his nose, and finally returns to normal without ever really understanding where his nose went or why. It all makes sense because, caught up in the fantastic storytelling of Gogol and Shostakovich and Mr Kentridge, you don’t have time to wonder at what sort of sense it’s supposed to make.