Image borrowed from http://www.eno.org

One of the ENO’s great strengths is its willingness to experiment with new works, and another is its collaborations, both with other opera companies and other artistic disciplines. A Dog’s Heart fits into all these categories, being the UK premiere of a new work, the production involving collaborations with De Nederlandse Opera, theatre company Complicite and puppeteers Blind Summit ; an exciting prospect, indeed.

Director Simon McBurney described himself as having no konzept for his first foray into opera, but worked on it “by listening to the music and reading the story over and over again”, which proved an excellent decision, in this case. The story is Mikhail Bulgakov’s 1925 surreal satire of the Soviet regime, banned until 1987, and, nearly a century later, startlingly relevant, containing as it does themes of class distrust, media distortions, bureaucratic officiousness, and vanity-fuelled experimental surgery. It is also quite ridiculous, centring on a stray dog who, when his testicles are replaced with those of a human, becomes human in various other ways (such as growing a human face, walking upright, and developing a taste for vodka, tobacco, the works of Engels, and balalaika music). Transformed into operatic form, the tale thus deserves inclusion in the fine tradition of Russian absurdist satirical opera, alongside Shostakovich’s The Nose and Schnittke’s Life with an Idiot.

Although a well-established composer in other forms (though not yet very well-known in the UK, apart, perhaps, from some of his chamber music), A Dog’s Heart is Alexander Raskatov’s first full opera. As a woodwind geek, I confess my eyes lit up before a note had even been played, on spying in the pit an expanded section including alto flute, contrabassoon, saxophones, and that rare beast, the contrabass clarinet. Throughout the work, Raskatov makes great use of extremes of register, contrasting the growling contras with piccolos and violin harmonics, and also makes wonderful use of the full diversity of timbres available. The tonal palette is also varied, sometimes atonal, sometimes polytonal, and now and then dipping very effectively into traditional harmony with fragments of Russian folk song, Soviet march, or Orthodox church music (with hints of Stravinsky, Shostakovich, and even Mussorgsky). However, I nevertheless found the music quite difficult to engage with. This had nothing to do with the dissonance, but with the long periods of very irregular, spikily strident rhythms and pointillist note patterns; despite, or perhaps because of, the pinpoint-accurate bite of Garry Walker’s orchestra, it made everything seem unnecessarily agitated and over-dramatic, which was fine for scenes such as the bloody operations, but less so for accompanying a convivial glass of vodka between friends. It may well have been Raskatov’s aim to suggest the unease and agitation constantly present just outside the walls of Professor Preobrazhensky’s comfortable flat, but a constant high state of tension cannot be sustained indefinitely; it loses its power. I found myself longing for a change: some legato, longer melodic lines given to an instrument, or even some longer-sustained notes. This wish was answered immediately in Act 2, particularly in the lovely but brief duets between the Professor and devoted assistant Bormenthal (baritones Steven Page and Leigh Melrose), and I enjoyed the music of the second half significantly more than the first. However, I ended the opera with my fingers literally stuck in my ears, due to the unbearable volume of sound generated by giving an opera chorus megaphones!

With nothing resembling traditional arias, the majority of the singers were restricted to natural speech-patterned recitative – essentially, pitched conversation – which, while allowing them to demonstrate technical dexterity in navigating Raskatov’s gymnastic leaps, left little opportunity for expressiveness of phrasing or even, really, much of their tone quality to come through. The women in particular suffered in this way, with, for example, Elena Vassilieva producing a clever amalgam of speech and canine growling (as pre-op dog Sharik’s ‘unpleasant voice’),  Sophie Desmars’s role (as dog-man Sharikov’s short-lived fiancée) consisting of a series of (very well-executed) skittering squeaks, and Nancy Allen Lundy (as hysterical maid Zina) leaping around both vocally and physically – hammy mugging which many of the audience seemed to find hilarious, but which I found as irritating as trying to listen to a symphony with a hyperactive toddler running in and out shrieking for attention. Countertenor Andrew Watts (last seen being savaged by werewolves in The Duchess of Malfi) appeared here as, variously, man, woman and dog – as Sharik’s ‘pleasant voice’ providing rare moments of expressively eloquent longing (usually directed to a sausage).

While the various humans have supporting roles, the dog/man Sharik(ov) succeeds in being the most convincing and fully-realised character, in all his forms. Thanks to outstanding design (inspired by a Giacometti sculpture – see the original here) and deft puppetry skills, a half-formed skeleton dog is perfectly brought to life, and when reborn in the form of a gleefully repellent Peter Hoare, yaps, whines, scratches, swears, and makes a virtuoso performance of behaving in exactly the way one might imagine a dog in human form to do.

Complicite are particularly admired for the visual aspects of their productions, and, my reservations about the score aside, for this reason alone I would recommend this show to anyone who enjoyed their recent A Disappearing Number, or who has an appreciation for innovative staging. I myself particularly enjoy the recent trend for multimodal mixing of text with set (as in Satyagraha) and the incorporation of pre-recorded or live video projection effects (as in Le Grand Macabre), and all of these were imaginatively and wittily used throughout, to create a succession of incredibly striking images interacting in real time with the characters’ actions. There are too many of these to list, and in any case, I am disinclined to give out ‘spoilers’ which might lessen the effect – the gasps of surprised delight and smatterings of spontaneous applause were too clearly in evidence.

During A Dog’s Heart I was variously amused, appalled, irritated, touched with joy and sadness, and eventually left the theatre pondering the nature and meaning of humanity. And if that is not the mark of a successful piece of theatre, what is?

[Review written for and reproduced here with the kind permission of Opera Britannia.]

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