A Dog's Heart is a collaboration between the director and choreographer Simon McBurney, his company Complicite, and the composer Alexander Raskatov.
The opera is based on Mikhail Bulgakov's homonymous 1925 satire of early Soviet communism, a satire that uses the story of a bourgeois Russian scientist's transformation of a starving dog into a man who then becomes a troublesome and disenfranchised proletarian activist, to throw into sharp relief some of the arrogance and cruelty that was shared across all levels of society in the Soviet Union at the time, from the self-serving and patronizing bourgeoisie (Professor Preobrazhensky), to the alternately venal and malicious lower communist officers, to the riotous and disingenuous proletarians. It is a Netherlands Opera/ENO co-production, and runs for a total of 7 performances finishing on December 2.
I must admit that before tonight Alexander Raskatov was not a composer I knew much about, with the exception of what turned out to be one decisive piece of information - that he had completed Alfred Schnittke's Symphony No. 9 a couple of years ago. This clue turned out to be entirely germane, with Raskatov's compositional style in fact mimicking the semi-postmodern polystylism of Schnittke quite closely.
Of all the canonical musical forms opera is built most readily for the showcasing of such an approach. It offers a robust framework for such heterogeneity and parlour game quotation as was on fecund display in A Dog's Heart, allowing its various orchestral and vocal voices to make sense as intensifying articulations of discrete dramatic events or emotions.
This is an opera in which Bergian and post-Straussian expressionism; eclectic pseudo-quotation (of everything from Bach to Tchaikovsky to Russian folk music); Prokofievian pungency; rock beat heft; alternately lyrical, exaggerated, and experimental vocal styles; and many other references telescope into one busy and unwieldy hyper-style. Such a clutter creates difficulty for the performers, particularly the conductor, in demanding that they marshal it into some sort of musically convincing coherence. The audience, meanwhile, must hang on by their fingertips in the attempt to gain some affective purchase on the show.
The advantage of the tactic is that it means the opera can readily generate an impression of the Ridiculous Sublime, that effect we experience in David Lynch films where meaning is smeared across a labyrinthine spectrum of dazzling narrative and referential twists and turns.
The key in adopting such a thorny approach, I would suggest, is that this latter advantage is cultivated without losing some sense of felt life in the construction, such that we can be dazzled by the acerbic humour of the libretto, by the technical achievement of the puppetry, and by the discontinuous lava flow of musical material, whilst here and there nevertheless experiencing a closeness with the events on stage.
A Dog's Heart just about satisfies this criterion. It does this through the keen and attentive efforts of conductor Garry Walker, the consistently astounding skill of the puppeteers, the economy and effectiveness of the set design (Michael Levine), and the conceptually, pragmatically, and aesthetically watertight direction of McBurney. Above all, the opera transcends mere farce through some astonishingly vivid performances on stage, particularly from the wild and chomping coloratura of Peter Hoare as Sharikov, the human manifestation of the first act's dog, the meticulously pitched and emotionally rich countertenor Andrew Watts as the 'pleasant' internal voice of the dog, the comic relief stratospheric coloratura and prancing moves of Nancy Allen Lundy as Zina the maid, and the megaphone-mediated mongrel vocal yelps and hoarse scrapes of Elena Vassilieva (a favoured collaborator of Raskatov) as the dog's 'unpleasant' external voice (she also plays Darya the cook).
Reservations about the sometimes clumsy flow of the score and indeed about the heightened allegory on stage were consistently defeated by sheer dazzlement at the spectacle on stage. (Use of leitmotivic repetition as a structural device also helped to ensure some coherence in the flow.) This was particularly the case in the firestorm chaos of the closing scenes of the first act leading up to the transformation and shocking reveal of the human Sharikov (which is achieved by Hoare leaping naked to the table and screaming 'suck my cock' at a flustered auditorium), and in the first scenes of the second act where Sharikov runs hilariously riot through the Professor's house, leading the Professor and his assistant Bormenthal to grow increasingly desperate in their search for a solution that will guarantee, even temporarily, their sanctity in their large house.
These first three quarters whizz by in a thrilling haze of musical reference, mordant politicising, and startling achievements of staging and performance. As the second act progresses the music and drama attain an unexpected height of felt expression, with Leigh Melrose's somewhat ancillary Bormenthal finally moving into a distinct antagonistic space within the drama, and Steven Page's imperious Professor confirming his disdain for the lower social orders by reversing the operation and turning Sharikov back into a dog.
The music arches out at this juncture to sustained figures suspended over a wide textural division of high wind harmonics and low string pedal points, as it did earlier on at crucial points in the first act, whilst repeated middle string motifs taper the material back to tangy minor harmonies that serve to push the opera into deeper affective territories than it had heretofore realised. Our sympathies are confirmed in their allegiance to the cruelly exploited proletarian class, in these sections, but it is a sign of the depth of the show and the staging that we are never entirely comfortable denying at least some of that allegiance to the repellent Professor and his ilk. Highly entertaining.
Photos by Stephen Cummiskey