San Francisco Museum of Modern Art/Norton Museum of Art/ Yale University Press, 263 pp. with DVD, $50.00
The South African artist William Kentridge’s production of Dmitri Shostakovich’s The Nose—the first time the opera has been staged at the Met—did not conceal the scope of its ambition. Even before the music began, the collage that serves as the curtain juxtaposed enough formal, literary, historical, and personal motifs to fuel a detailed interpretive gloss—a gloss not converging on a central meaning but rather spinning out into disparate lines of speculation. This was merely a prelude to a production whose profusion of moving parts and jarringly unlike elements was scaled to the crowded compression of Shostakovich’s opera, with its sixteen scenes and seventy-plus singing roles filling something less than two hours of stage time.
Nikolai Gogol’s 1837 story is itself only some twenty-five pages in length, but—as Shostakovich and Kentridge resoundingly demonstrate—no less immense for that. The tale of a nose lost and pursued and found again might be the simplest and most senseless story in the world: so simple and senseless that we come to feel we have been granted privileged entry into the heart of some great and maddening secret, an account of the world so contrary to reason—so transparently concocted out of nothing—that it must be true.
Questions of scale are inevitable in contemplating a work grounded—if such a word can be used for what after all is a parable of groundlessness—in such abrupt and incommensurable changes of scale. The nose that at one moment is small enough to be deposited in a policeman’s pocket struts about at other moments in the trappings of a state councillor. A huge cast and an arsenal of special effects are mobilized for a dramatic action eddying around the unaccountably missing item in the face of Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov: “that ridiculous blank space again,” as one of the many phrases that punctuate the production has it.
Using the Met stage as it is rarely used, Kentridge establishes from the outset a vigorously multidimensional environment, defined in equal measure by verticals and horizontals, by flat graphic surfaces and the deep space of the rear stage. A barber swings down on a rope from his second-story shop; a crosswalk serves variously as a bridge and as the upper reaches of a cathedral; small dwellings roll in and out with the apparent help of hardworking St. Petersburg residents; rooms are entered upside down through the roof. These rapidly mutating spaces are themselves pocked and crisscrossed by a ceaseless overlay of projected images and words (whether English or Russian), slogans, want ads, swarming crowds, a Rocinante-like horse, graphic effects out of Rodchenko and Tatlin, fragments …