This week: Tales of spies, a Mozart surprise & more.

Leonardo da Vinci,  A Bear Walking, ca. 1482–85,  Silverpoint on light buff prepared paper,  the Metropolitan Museum of Art


The Last Days of Stalin, by Joshua Rubenstein (Yale University Press): On the heels of a report that Russian authorities are considering a ban on a soon-to-be-released comedy, The Death of Stalin (directed by Armando Iannucci and starring Jeffrey Tambor, Steve Buscemi, and Michael Palin, among others), Yale University Press last week published a more scholarly approach to the same watershed event. At the time of his death in 1953, Stalin was considering an elevation of military aggression against the West, increased oppression of the USSR’s satellite countries, and the brutal exile of all Soviet Jews. Joshua Rubenstein’s The Last Days of Stalin focuses on these final months of Stalin’s life—giving context to the power vacuum that followed his sudden collapse on March 1—and sheds light on the inner workings of a Soviet Party that was totally devoted to obfuscation and censorship. Culling its information from a wide range of primary sources (for instance, an interview with Sergei Nikitich Khrushchev, the son of the Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev), The Last Days of Stalin is a salient and welcome take on this period of restless uncertainty. —AS


“The Literary Spy Novel,” at The Center for Fiction (October 11): A major issue of the genre known as spy fiction is the strength of its literary bona fides. Can spy novels be more than airport paperback pulp? Books like Conrad’s Secret Agent (1907) and Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana (1958) would suggest so. More recently, John le Carré has been hailed as a literary novelist first, spy novelist second, an idea furthered by the inscrutability of his plotting and perhaps his fashionably leftist politics. But it must be said that for every Conrad or Greene or le Carré, there’s a Tom Clancy. And then where does Ian Fleming fit? On October 11 two contemporary spy novelists, Paul Vidich and Joseph Kanon, will discuss the merits of the literary spy novel at the Center for Fiction, where some answers to the above queries may be forthcoming. —BR


Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres,  Study for “Raphael and the Fornarina” (detail),  ca. 1814,  Graphite on white wove paper,  the Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Leonardo to Matisse: Masterpieces from the Robert Lehman Collection” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (through January 7, 2018): One of the great benefits of Robert Lehman’s bequest to the Metropolitan Museum of Art is that his magnificent collection, maintained in a dedicated wing, regularly gives us access to a wider range of art history than we might otherwise see in a museum. “Leonardo to Matisse: Masterpieces from the Robert Lehman Collection,” opening this Wednesday—a pendant to the major exhibition of Michelangelo drawings coming in November—is a case in point: a selection from seven hundred drawings, spanning five centuries, by Leonardo, Dürer, Rembrandt, Goya, Ingres, Seurat, and Matisse, will be on display for the first time together. —JP


Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte at the Metropolitan Opera (through October 14): I certainly didn’t expect a revival of Die Zauberflöte to be the highlight of opening week at the Metropolitan Opera—but live performance has a way of catching us off guard. With a sensational cast filling out Julie Taymor’s fanciful 2004 production, the glaring inadequacy of Emanuel Schikaneder’s witless libretto seemed to melt away, leaving only the sublime beauty of Mozart’s final work for the stage. Kathryn Lewek was perhaps the best Queen of the Night I’ve had the pleasure to hear in person. Her voice features the rare combination that sets a coloratura soprano apart from the field: beaming clarity and warmth of tone. Markus Werba is a perfect fit for Papageno, sporting a round, full baritone and the comic chops to bring off the character with real charm. Charles Castronovo’s powerful, robust tenor was a welcome change from a string of reedy Taminos, and Golda Schultz made a strong debut as Pamina. All this under the baton of James Levine, who led a beautifully rendered, thrillingly paced performance from the pit. Lewek and Castronovo will return for the reduced, family-friendly English adaptation in November, but there are just two weeks left to hear Die Zauberflöte in full, auf Deutsch. The closing matinee on October 14 will be simulcast in select movie theaters. —ECS


Arthur Szyk,  Pilgrims (Mayflower and “Illegal” Passenger Ship),  1946,  Pen, ink, and pencil on board,  New-York Historical Society

“Arthur Szyk: Soldier in Art” at the New-York Historical Society (through January 21, 2018): A new exhibition at the New-York Historical Society revives the legacy of Arthur Szyk, the prolific “soldier in art.” Largely known for his World War II caricatures in which he forcefully tried to expose the horrors of the Nazis and the other Axis powers, his illustrations and illuminated designs provide astute personal commentaries on various historical moments. Take these three moments in Jewish history: In the late 1920s, Szyk created an illustrated copy of the Statute of Kalisz—Bolesław the Pious’s 1264 charter granting Jews in Poland unprecedented liberties—in which he portrayed different ways Polish Jews contributed to their community. A few years later, he completed the drawing We’re Running Short of Jews (1943), in which Hitler, Goebbels, Himmler, and Göring surround a Gestapo report that reads “2,000,000 Jews executed. Heil Hitler.” And just five years after that, he created an illuminated text of the Israeli Declaration of Independence, depicting both biblical and contemporary Jewish characters. It is not just the history of the Jews, however, that concerned Szyk: throughout his life, he completed a historical series on George Washington, an illuminated copy of the United States Declaration of Independence, illustrations for an edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and an edition of Flaubert’s Temptations of Saint Anthony, among many other accomplishments. —RH

From the archive: “The terrible teens,” by Diana West (September 1996). A review of Teenagers: An American History by Grace Palladino.

From the current issue: “The most of Anthony Burgess,” by Dominic Green. On the literary career of Anthony Burgess.

Broadcast: Fall classical music preview with Eric C. Simpson and Jay Nordlinger.Harlem Renaissance

Click here for a full archive of past Critic’s Notebooks.

A Message from the Editors

Your donation sustains our efforts to inspire joyous rediscoveries.