A Dog’s Heart, ENO

‘The current climate’ is a dreary, defeatist phrase,
generally an excuse for enemies of all that it is to be human to diminish our
humanity further; nevertheless, it seems to inform so much of what we do and
even hope for at the moment, that to have a new opera by an un-starry Russian
composer, of whom most of the audience most likely will never have heard,
performed at the Coliseum is worth a cheer or two in itself. (The current
practice of many companies and orchestras in parochially commissioning works
only from British artists is unworthy of organisations that would claim a place
upon the world stage.) A couple more cheers — again, at least —
must be granted the show’s resounding theatrical success. For
more than anything else this is a triumph for Simon McBurney and Complicite.
After a number of false starts in its current mission to import values from the
non-operatic theatre, however one wishes to term it, ENO, in collaboration with
the co-producing Holland Festival, really hits the target this time.

A fuller synopsis can be found elsewhere, but briefly, A Dog’s Heart
reworks Mikhail Bulgakov’s satire. Cesare Mazzonis’s libretto is here translated by Martin Pickard. The opera opens with a stray dog — the
superb puppet work inspired by Alberto Giacometti (click here for the sculpture
in question) — mistreated by men, apparently rescued and promised a
dog’s paradise by a distinguished scientist, Professor Filipp Filippovich
Preobrazhensky. The parallelism between the new workers’ state and the
animal’s condition is revealingly maintained and deepened throughout,
likewise the repellent superior pretensions of Preobrazhensky — the name
will be familiar to students of Bolshevism and Stalinism — both as
scientist and as human. Eventually, the professor sees his chance for true
scientific glory. Having fed up the dog, whom he has named Sharik, he
transplants human testicles and a pituitary gland, to create a ‘new
man’, Sharikov. Sharikov’s antics leave him, the professor notes,
at the most rudimentary evolutionary level, yet that is hardly Sharikov’s
fault; indeed he garners hope from association with proletarian organisations,
further horrifying his creator. The professor disowns him and conducts a second
operation. The creature is once again a ‘mere’ dog. I could not
help wondering about a potential English play on words: is the dog man another
representation of our desire to create a god man?

DogHeart02.gifPeter Hoare as Sharikov

What marks A Dog’s Heart out from many collaborations is that
it was collaborative from the beginning, a joint project involving composer,
librettist, and Complicite. This tells; I suspected it must have been so before
I discovered that it was. A true sense of theatre is present from the very
outset, the opera opening without warning. Pacing is keen throughout and the
stage direction puts most to shame. The puppetry, previously mentioned, is
wonderful — this includes a cat, whom Sharikov cannot help but chase
— but so are mechanics such as scene changing, so often something hapless
to endure in the opera house. Sets from Michael Levine and his assistant, Luis
Carvalho, are exemplary: never fussy, but evocative both of period and of their
stage in the drama. The grandeur of the professor’s rooms — envied
by the proletarian house committee, but our scientist has friends in high
places — provides an apt link with an older Moscow, whilst Finn
Ross’s NEP-style projections make clear what has changed. The silhouetted
— in part — operation was very well handled, bringing subsequent
gore into greater relief.

This is, to my knowledge, the only opera whose first act closes with the
injunction, ‘Suck my cock!’ Why, in the supertitles, coyly write
‘c*unt’ thus, when everyone could hear the word, and why suppose,
especially in such a context, that the sensibilities of Daily Mail
readers should be considered? The ‘profane language’ is not, in
that bizarre circumlocution, ‘gratuitous’, but integral to the
plot, above all to the dog-man’s characterisation. Where it can somewhat
irritate in Ligeti’s Le grand macabre — though there is,
of course, Dadaist (un-)reason for it there too — it would be several
suburbanisms too far for anyone to object in the present case.

Music, it must be said, takes second billing, though that is not a unique
phenomenon: GÈrard Mortier’s parting shot at the OpÈra national de Paris,
Am Anfang, billed Anselm Kiefer’s installation before Jˆrg
Widmann’s score, and Widmann is a more famed composer than Alexander
Raskatov. And yet, though I flatter myself that I can be called a musician, I
did not mind, which must say something about the sum of the parts. It was far
from easy to discern where one ‘contribution’ began and another
stopped. For instance, doubling of parts seemed to have a point beyond economy.
This is not Lulu; there was none of Berg’s carefully-crafted
parallelism and symmetry. But the taking on of different roles said something
about anonymity, appearance from and disappearance into the proletarian crowd,
and Warhol-like moments in the limelight.

DogHeart03.gifSteven Page as Professor Filipp Filippovich Preobrazhensky and Graeme Danby as Fyodor/Newspaper Seller/Big Boss

I cannot imagine wishing to hear to Raskatov’s score outside the
theatre — and whilst I should definitely be tempted by a subsequent
dramatic project, I should find it difficult to evince enthusiasm for hearing
his music in the concert hall. Nevertheless, it works in the theatre. (People
say that of Verdi, but that apparent success has always eluded me.) It is
recognisably ‘Russian’- sounding, closer perhaps to Schnittke than
anyone else, though there may be other influences of whose work I am simply
unaware. Often somewhat cartoonish, it occupies its (relatively) subordinate
role cheerfully and has its individualistic moments, for instance in the use of
bass guitar. Connections to earlier Russian composers are manifest too. This is
not Prokofiev (certainly not Prokofiev at his operatic best, for instance
The Gambler or The Fiery Angel), but it is a good deal more
entertaining than most Shostakovich — or Schnittke, for that matter. I
cannot say that I could hear much, or any, influence from late Stravinsky or
Webern, such as David Nice suggested in his otherwise helpful programme note.
(Incidentally — actually, not incidentally, but importantly — the
programme features, McBurney’s contributions included, were of an
unusually high standard.) Thinning of textures on certain occasions aside, it
was difficult to discern any kinship with the iron discipline of those
serialist masters. But Raskatov’s closed forms, whilst obvious, exert
their own dramatic impetus in tandem with the events on stage, even if the
vocal writing — melismata, scalic passages, and so on — swiftly
becomes predictable. A passcaglia signals darkening of mood, likewise the odd
Mussorgskian choral moment: again, perhaps, predictable, yet again, perhaps,
‘effective’: a word I recall my A-level music teacher counselling
against using, but here undeniably ‘effective’.

Garry Walker’s command of the score sounded exemplary. The sweeping
dramatic drive he imparted made me keen to hear him back at the Coliseum very
soon. He certainly knew how to bring the best out of the excellent ENO
Orchestra — who deserved a good number of cheers of their own. The
musicians played their hearts out — perhaps an unfortunate metaphor in
the context of the present work — so much as to make one tempted truly to
believe in Raskatov’s score. Steven Page presented a convincing dramatic
portrayal of Preobrazhensky’s dilemma: no hint of caricature here, though
the vibrato may have proved a little much for some tastes. Peter Hoare did
likewise, albeit in very different manner, for Sharikov, repelling and
provoking sympathy. Other noteworthy performances included the aburdist
coloratura part of Zina the maid (Nancy Allen Lundy) and the grotesque cameo of
Frances McCafferty’s elderly Second Patient. How could anyone refuse? How
could anyone not? The dog as dog has two voices: unpleasant, the distorted,
loud-speaker-hailing soprano Elena Vassileva (also impressive as the
professor’s housekeeper, Darya Petrovna), and pleasant, the fine
counter-tenor, Andrew Watts. There was certainly no finer musicianship on stage
than that of Watts, whose plangent tones inspired the most genuine sympathy of
all without sentimentalising.

The theatre seemed full and the audience responded enthusiastically. I saw
two composers — Raskatov aside — so I suspect there will have been
more. So no, this was not a musical event to rank with the recent premiere
of Alexander Goehr’s Promised End
— English Touring
Opera’s initiative rightly described by Michael
Tanner in The Spectator
as ‘astoundingly heroic’
— but as a musico-theatrical event, it scored very highly. Unlike, say,
the dismal recent Rufus
Norris Don Giovanni
, which, had ‘theatre people’ come
to see it, might well have put them off opera for life, this might just have
intrigued some of them to explore musical drama further. Our political and
financial masters would never understand this, let alone agree, but that is
something to which one cannot affix a price.

Mark Berry

image_description=Steven Page as Professor Filipp Filippovich Preobrazhensky [Photo by Stephen Cummiskey courtesy of English National Opera]
product_title=Alexander Raskatov: A Dog’s Heart
product_by=Professor Filipp Filippovich Preobrazhensky: Steven Page; Peter Amoldovich Bormenthal: Leigh Melrose; Sharikov: Peter Hoare; Sharik the dog (unpleasant voice): Elena Vassileva; Sharik the dog (pleasant voice): Andrew Watts; Darya Petrovna: Elena Vassileva; Zina: Nancy Allen Lundy; Shvonder: Alasdair Elliott; Vyasemskaya: Andrew Watts; First Patient: Peter Hoare; Second Patient: Frances McCafferty; Provocateur: David Newman; Proletarians: Ella Kirkpatrick, Andrew Watts, Alasdair Elliott, Michael Burke; Fyodor/Newspaper Seller/Big Boss: Graeme Danby; Secretary: Sophie Desmars; Investigator: Matthew Hargreaves; Drunkards: Michael Selby, Christopher Speight. Old Women: Deborah Davison, Jane Reed; Puppeteers: Robin Beer, Finn Caldwell, Josie Dexter, Mark Down. Director, choreographer: Simon McBurney; Set designs: Michael Levine and Luis Carvalho; Costumes: Christina Cunningham; Lighting: Paul Anderson; Movement: Toby Sedgwick; Finn Ross (projections); Director of Puppetry: Blind Summit Theatre — Mark Down and Nick Barnes. Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: Martin Merry); Orchestra of the English National Opera; Garry Walker (conductor). Coliseum, London, Saturday 20 November 2010.
product_id=Above: Steven Page as Professor Filipp Filippovich Preobrazhensky

All photos by Stephen Cummiskey courtesy of English National Opera