On The Nose

nose act i scene 0600 On The NoseWilliam Kentridge’s The Nose teems with text. The famed visual artist’s production of Shostakovich’s early masterpiece—about a government functionary who one day awakes to find his nose inexplicably vanished—marks the first time the work has appeared at the Metropolitan Opera. For the occasion, Mr. Kentridge has created a whole new curtain, proscenium and backdrop filled with a collage of newspaper fragments and non-sequitur quotes from Nikolai Gogol, who wrote the story on which the opera is based. “All the universe seen through binoculars, gigantic binoculars (from the wrong side)” is there, and “Traditions to sift” and “My flesh is smoking.”

Literally on top of all this, at many points, the Russian text of certain lines is projected, alongside alternately fragmented and complete English translations that appear unexpectedly all over the set, sometimes still, sometimes scrolling, sometimes exploding like the “BAM!” in a Batman comic. Even the costumes in the crowd scenes, fantasias on early Soviet utopian fashion, are covered in writing.

All these words weren’t always welcome at the Met. Some form of English translation is a universal fact of contemporary opera performance ever since the Canadian Opera Company first used supertitles in 1983. But there has always been a hint of “regional opera” around them, and Met artistic director James Levine once famously said that the company would use supertitles “over my dead body.”

But the titling wave was too strong to resist completely, and in 1995 the Met introduced its own system, Met Titles, in which the translations appear on austere little screens hovering an inch or two above the seat in front of you. (The font—yellowish, all-caps, sans serif, spindly—haunts my dreams.) Even at the news conference presenting the system, The Times reported that Mr. Levine and Mr. Volpe “reasserted their opposition in principle to translations. But they added that their strongest objection was to projected titles, which they said interfere with the stage action and also disturb those who prefer not to use translations.”

Little did they know that 15 years later, three of the most acclaimed recent Met productions would not just use projected titles, but would revel in them, not just sequestering the translations above the stage but shining them all over the set. Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch’s 2008 Satyagraha, the greatest Met production of the past decade; Patrice Chereau’s From the House of the Dead this past fall; and now The Nose: All of them make the old Met Titles seem a little dull.

Mr. Kentridge’s production, text and all, is a glorious, intricately constructed mess. Met audiences used to calmly digesting every line of Tosca on the seat back in front of them seemed occasionally puzzled (the woman next to me kept futzing with the buttons on her Met Titles, expecting them to give her a more complete text), but they received an expert education in absurdism. Nothing that happened onstage was less than entirely clear—Mr. Kentridge could teach fellow Met director Bartlett Sher a few things about absurdity not equaling incoherence—but the director kept his audience in a constant state of pleasurable puzzlement.

The opera, of course, tells a story of more unpleasurable puzzlement. The plot is simple—civil servant Kovalyov loses his nose, searches for it, and one morning finds it back on his face—but it reverberates with reflections about freedom and identity. Shostakovich wrote the eclectic, energetic score when he was only 22, amid the cultural flowering that followed the 1917 revolution, but he later had a deeply complicated relationship with the regime, with his music periodically denounced and banned. Mr. Kentridge, who is South African and whose early visual work focused on the complex negotiations of identity and power under apartheid, closes his program note with a reference to the “post-history” that followed the period of the opera’s composition. This post-history is prefigured in the opera’s final act, with its threatening mob and repressive policemen.

Mr. Kentridge adds to this ominous mood by staging the opera’s orchestral interludes with projected animations—in the virtuosic stop-motion style for which he has become famous—depicting the alternately joyful and lonely wanderings of Kovalyov’s nose. The director, who has long been fascinated with early film, superimposes the nose on footage of Shostakovich, marching Soviet crowds and, most memorably, the great ballerina Anna Pavlova. The nose is both persecuted and a symbol of the persecution of others, associated with both nostalgia and premonitions of oppression. The projections are evocative, as they always are with Mr. Kentridge—his retrospective currently up at the Museum of Modern Art amply displays his dazzling gifts—but they can also be vague, sometimes content to let loaded imagery—the footage of militaristic crowds, the Soviet font—do the emotional heavy lifting.

The domestic scenes—particularly the long sequences in Kovalyov’s apartment—were cramped into small, realistic sets that moved on- and offstage. While this was doubtless the point, to underline the distinction between Kovalyov’s claustrophobia and his liberated nose’s reckless freedom, it led to a lot of visual stasis that even the charisma of South Pacific star Paulo Szot, who played Kovalyov, couldn’t quite overcome.

That said, the Pavlova film sequence is as funny, beautiful and haunting as any moment I’ve seen at the Met. And there’s a memorable staging of a scene in a newspaper office where Kovalyov goes to advertise for his missing nose. Mr. Kentridge has envisioned the office as a cross between Dickens’ Circumlocution Office and a Japanese capsule hotel, with the workers popping out of stacked, nestlike cubicles thatched with newspaper. It’s hilarious and disturbing, just like the opera, and it’s a highlight of the first truly memorable production of the Met’s season.