Dmitri Shostakovich composed his first opera, "The Nose," more than 80 years ago and based it on a short story written nearly a century before that.
Yet few works in the repertory seem more modern or musically challenging than this absurdist masterpiece that came to the Metropolitan Opera for the first time Friday night.
Written when the composer was just 22, the opera is adapted from a story by Nikolai Gogol about a bureaucrat in St. Petersburg named Kovalyov who wakes up to discover his nose is missing. With the logic of a nightmare, he pursues it through the town, allowing Gogol — and Shostakovich — to satirize just about every institution of Russian life: the bureaucracy, the church, the press, the police, the medical profession.
At one point, the nose takes human form and appears as a bureaucrat who outranks the befuddled Kovalyov and haughtily snubs him.
Shostakovich set this bizarre tale to a score that is brimming with energy, a riot of atonal exuberance, filled with percussion seemingly run amok, brassy vulgarity and vocal lines that punish the singers mercilessly — punctuated by a few beautiful snatches of melody. The opera, performed without intermission, is less than two hours long, but its demands on the listener are intense.
To stage this daunting work, the Met found the perfect match for Shostakovich's sensibility in William Kentridge, the esteemed South African artist known for his collages and animated drawings.
Even before the opera begins, the audience is greeted by a giant collage in place of the curtain. It's teeming with a jumble of images, including political slogans and nonsense phrases in both English and Russian ("Another Kheppi Ending!" is one), street maps of St. Petersburg, a large red dot and pictures of historical figures.
Once the curtain goes up, the action takes place in movable sets that the characters sometimes drag on and off stage themselves. On a screen behind them plays a nonstop animated show, much of it featuring a grotesque oversize cartoon drawing of the missing nose, which at various times rides a horse that turns into a statue or appears superimposed over the heads of real figures from old newsreels and film footage.
One striking image occurs when Kovalyov finally gets his nose back but can't make it stick to his face. While he keeps trying, we see a dancer — with the nose where her head should be — gracefully executing dainty ballet steps.
One aspect of the staging does seem odd at first: There is no attempt to make Kovalyov appear as if his nose is really missing. After a while, however, it makes sense to have him look normal to the audience, since his problem is not so much a deformed appearance as embarrassment at how he thinks people will perceive him — thus his constant attempts to cover up his face with a handkerchief.
Throughout the evening, Kentridge's zany displays of visual imagination manage to enhance rather than distract from the score. No wonder the biggest cheers at the curtain call went to him and the rest of his design team.
Not that the musical side of things was undeserving. As Kovalyov, Brazilian baritone Paulo Szot — fresh from his Tony award-winning performance in "South Pacific" — made a splendid Met debut. He played his character's ridiculous plight with utter seriousness, riding an emotional roller coaster from disbelief to desperation to depression — only to emerge with swaggering self-satisfaction once he gets his nose back in its proper place. His singing was smooth and strong, except for a couple of times in the Kazan Cathedral scene where his moderate-size voice got swallowed up by the orchestra.
Of the more than 70 other solo parts, Andrei Popov deserves special mention for coping so well with the fiendishly high-lying role of the corrupt Police Inspector, who brings Kovalyov back his nose but insists on multiple bribes in exchange. Another debuting tenor, Gordon Gietz, gave sharp utterance to the few lines written for the Nose. Bass Gennady Bezzubenkov was excellent as the sadistic doctor, and soprano Erin Morley sang sweetly as Madame Podtochina's daughter, whose mother vainly hopes to marry her off to Kovalyov.
Valery Gergiev conducted the Met orchestra with a knowledge of the intricacies of this unique score that few if any living conductors could match.