By Heidi Waleson
NEW YORK — New productions at the Metropolitan Opera tend to get all the thunder, but sometimes revivals offer the biggest thrills.
Two dynamite productions of 20th-century classics are playing back to back at the house through October: Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1960) in the quirkily compelling Tim Albery production from 1996, and Shostakovich’s The Nose (1930), which sold out in 2010 when it was unveiled in artist William Kentridge’s kaleidoscopic staging. These trenchant interpretations of very different works demonstrate how a non-standard repertory piece in just the right treatment can become a must-see.
Albery’s Dream captures the essence of the opera, carefully adapted from Shakespeare into an alchemical potion of danger, comedy, and beauty. From the spooky arpeggios of the chorus of fairies (both boys and girls at the Met) to the insistent trombone that accompanies Bottom and his fellow rustics, and the serene, fugal quartet of the awakening lovers in Act III, the score presents a world in which magic is not benign and humanity is multi-faceted and unsentimental.
In this production, the sense of ordinary life unmoored starts with the first notes of the opera, as an image of a primitive chalk drawing of a house tumbles across the black show curtain and flies away. Antony McDonald’s design often suggests a child’s artwork in its shapes and colors: Tytania enters by breaking through a crescent moon cutout; the forest is a series of acid green walls pierced by a single, leafless tree limb. It’s a nightmare, but an alluring and slightly comic one, with the fairies wearing wide, glittery black tutus and pointy black wings, and Oberon and Tytania in neon-hued, sparkly business suits. Comedy goes full force for the rustics, also besuited, but in black and white checks and big windowpane patterns.
The impeccable cast was headed by countertenor Iestyn Davies, an ideal Oberon, with an easy, focused, crystalline sound, and an undercurrent of menace. He alternately caressed and throttled Puck, who, as played by the young actor Riley Costello, was a bad boy who likes to scare the fairies and pull off their wings. Kathleen Kim was charming as the magically besotted Tytania, her flowing coloratura twining around the harp and woodwinds of her Act II aria. Matthew Rose used his resonant bass and his imposing height to good effect as a gawky, hilarious Bottom; with his donkey head in Act II, he made a particularly funny partner for the diminutive Kim.
As Hermia and Helena, Elizabeth DeShong’s velvety mezzo and Erin Wall’s limpid lyric soprano were well matched; Joseph Kaiser and Michael Todd Simpson were impassioned as their clueless, star-crossed lovers, Lysander and Demetrius. Diction was excellent, including that of the four fine trebles as Tytania’s principal attendants, and the children’s chorus of fairies shimmered in the lullabies.
One really appreciates the quality of the Met’s orchestra in a score with such transparent orchestration and many instrumental solos, and James Conlon shaped this enthralling performance with loving care.
The Nose has none of the Britten opera’s musical allure. It is pure satire: a chaotic, anarchic, forward-driving interpretation of Gogol’s absurdist story about Kovalyov, a Russian civil servant whose nose goes AWOL. The language is dissonant, percussive, and jumbled, and Kentridge, whose art is a heady amalgam of collage and film, makes its humor and restlessness visible. He fills the entire proscenium opening with images – pages of text from newspapers and books, overlaid with slogans in Russian and English, that scroll and trail. Black silhouettes explode and reform into human figures that seem to drag physical set pieces on and off the stage.
Multimedia is the perfect theatrical solution for the Nose itself, which parades around St. Petersburg in the uniform of a state councilor, pursued by the hapless Kovalyov and eventually by everyone else. It takes physical form as a romping, man-size creation, but it is also a video silhouette, a mustachioed desperado on legs, that appears everywhere. Kentridge superimposes it, Zelig-like, on 1920s newsreel footage of political marches and athletic events (it does the high jump), and on Shostakovich, playing the piano. As Kovalyov laments his fate, it becomes the head of Anna Pavlova dancing The Dying Swan. It becomes a statue, heroically posed on a silhouette horse. At the end, a silhouette policeman shoots it and the Nose explodes into smithereens, a sudden, shocking moment that brings home the underlying theme of the opera and the production: joyful anarchy will eventually be crushed. Indeed, the Nose earlier drew a caricature of Stalin, whose pipe smoke expanded into a choking cloud.
Kentridge integrates this cascading barrage of images with his enormous human cast, making it both their environment and a projection of their inner lives. You feel the despair and absurdity of Paulo Szot’s Kovalyov as he tracks his wayward appendage to the cathedral and addresses it with great deference, because it is of higher rank. As the venal Police Inspector, Andrey Popov pitches his tenor brilliantly into shrieking range; the mad Doctor of Gennady Bezzubenkov (who suggests that Kovalyov is better off without his nose) is the helping profession run amok. Brief individual moments stand out: Theodora Hanslowe as a woman in a railway station, announcing that she knows when she will die; the bright soprano of Ying Fang, whose mother intends her to be Kovalyov’s bride. Conductor Pavel Smelkov led a scintillating, propulsive performance.
Interest in Kentridge drove the huge success of The Nose in 2010: the Museum of Modern Art put on a major exhibition of his work at the same time, and the art world turned out in force for the opera. The revival has not produced the same sellout crowds, but it will be shown in the Met’s HD series on Oct. 26, the last performance of the run, and also thereby preserved in video form. The production makes a powerful case for an opera that might otherwise be considered a novelty. Peter Gelb, the Met’s general director, says he started pursuing Kentridge for another project immediately; the artist will finally return to the Met in 2015-16 with a new production of a really gnarly 20th-century classic, Berg’s Lulu.
Heidi Waleson is the opera critic for the Wall Street Journal and writes about the performing arts for a variety of US and international publications.