Paulo Szot in The Nose
(© Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)
Paulo Szot in The Nose
(© Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)
During Peter Gelb's still-newish tenure at the Met Opera, he's brought a number of worthy productions to the stage -- along with a couple of calamities -- but with the treatment of The Nose, Dmitri Shostakovich's adaptation of the popular Nikolai Gogol short story about a small-time official who wakes up one morning to find his nose has disappeared, he's introduced his first brilliant addition.

Much of the credit belongs to William Kentridge, the South African artist best known for his animated political cartoons, who has not only penned the libretto (with Yevgeny Zamyatin, Georgi Ionin and Alexander Preis), but also executed the dazzling sets (with Sabine Theuissen) and directed the mesmerizing proceedings.

Kentrridge offers a panoply of effects that will put many viewers in mind of the Russian constructivists during the brief relaxed periods before Stalin cracked down and the Third Reich stifled artistic creativity. Newsprint is projected, slogans pop out, live and animated figures dance, navigable bridges slant on high, cockeyed buildings are pushed on and off out of which singers pop to raise their declamatory voices, and cast members move about sometimes painstakingly and sometimes agitatedly in Greta Goiris' colorfully idiosyncratic costumes.

The most ubiquitous prop is that nose, which Kentridge has admitted is modeled on his own. It's a proboscis that grows and diminishes in size and frequently ambles around on thin legs. Hot in pursuit of it -- but never catching up -- is lowly assessor Kovalyov, played by Tony Award winner Paulo Szot, whose deeply emotive baritone conveys the anxiety and urgency a man deprived of his nose would be expected to experience. Here, Szot suppresses the macho side of his personality seen in South Pacific to play a man whose frustration only thickens when he retrieves his nose but can't get it to reattach.

The second hero at work here is conductor Valery Gergiev, who's long been associated with this particular opera. The nervous percussive sounds that literally include bells and whistles -- not to mention a xylophone and typewriter-like tapping -- are clarion under Gergiev.

The opera, though shortish by the genre's standards, offers numerous opportunities for the many supporting performers to shine. Among the stand-outs in this production are Andrei Popov as a police inspector, Vladimir Ognovenko as a barber who might have detached the nose but probably didn't, Gennedy Bezzubenkov as a doctor who gets to sing his prescription for recovery, and Barbara Dever and Erin Morley as a mother and daughter looking to Kovalyov for a marriage proposal.

Precisely what Gogol is spoofing in his memorable story is somewhat obscure and maybe not worth trying to pinpoint. As the story ends, Gogol even laughs at himself for dreaming it up -- and Shostakovich includes those self-deprecating remarks. But even if the premise isn't as fully developed as one might wish, the Met's execution of the work is.