Shostakovich is mainly known in the West for his weighty Stalin-era symphonies, mostly about Russian suffering, mostly written after the government crackdown on his freewheeling, highly satirical art. This 1930 opera, in contrast, shows the composer at his least inhibited, writing an extended percussion cadenza (because he could) in a panorama of humorously trivial, vulgar Russian life.
It's a bit like watching a pre-code Hollywood film, in which heroes, villains, and plot lines follow no prescribed patterns of morality. That connection might be stronger than it seems: Young Shostakovich was a piano accompanist in silent-film houses, which also accounts for some of the music's antic Keystone Cops quality.
Atypical as it may be for the Met, the production is one of its most consistently acclaimed in recent years, in an unlikely collaboration of artist William Kentridge, who directed and designed it; Broadway star Paulo Szot as the nose-less protagonist; and conductor Valery Gergiev revealing the complex score with great clarity.
The sets look intentionally sketchy and slapdash, in the spirit of the score, often with newspaper stories and headlines crisscrossing amid gray-and-red hues depicting the city's street life. A catwalk comes and goes, so multiple streets are depicted simultaneously, sometimes partitioning realistic and fantastic elements.
Interiors are cramped, messy, and proletarian, with people coming and going through windows and ceiling hatches as well as doors. Aphorisms arise here and there, such as, "We also let blood."
Obviously, this is not some enchanted evening for South Pacific star Szot, though he sings some less-than-intuitive vocal lines with a lot more authority during this run than in his outings with the opera in seasons past. Conductor Gergiev, at least in the performance I heard a few weeks ago, wasn't his powerhouse self but seemed to be looking for the sense behind the raucousness.
Despite all odds, it does seem to be there.
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