The warped and the woof

Alexander Raskatov
A Dog's Heart

Reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, 3 December 2010

This house is doomed. They’re always singing.” I don’t know whether this line, delivered some two thirds of the way through the second act of Alexander Raskatov’s A Dog’s Heart, was intended as a comment on the improbable economics of the opera house. If it was, then it certainly comes from an improbable enough opera, and this not so much because of the story – an adaptation of a satirical novel by Mikhail Bulgakov – but rather because of Raskatov’s music. While the majority of those on stage are singers, it is true, “singing” doesn’t really capture what they do most of the time. Barking is perhaps a better term for the succession of serrated, melodically disjunct syllables through which Cessare Mazzonis’s libretto gradually makes itself understood.

This is not to say that A Dog’s Heart is a bad piece of music theatre. On the contrary, and as one might expect of its director, Simon McBurney, it is a theatrically innovative and entertaining piece of drama. Raskatov’s score is also often intelligently conceived. The declamatory style, while grating and problematic from the point of view of dramatic pacing, is appropriate to the unsympathetic environment in which the characters exist – especially the Bolsheviks, whose melodic angularity increases in proportion to their dehumanized sensibilities. In the orchestra, too, a rich palette of well-prepared effects, especially in the expanded brass and percussion sections, reflect with admirable immediacy the action on stage.

Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog concerns a Moscow medical professor’s attempt to turn a dog into a man by transplanting the testes and pituitary gland of a recently deceased criminal. The sharp satire it offers of life under Lenin’s New Economic Policy is barely disguised (the boorish dog-man proves to be an exemplar of Bolshevik virtues) and the novel was not published until 1987, more than sixty years after Bulgakov wrote it and nearly fifty after his death. The idea of making an opera out of the story originally came from the director of Der Nederlandse Opera, Pierre Audi. Although he first commissioned Alexander Raskatov, a composer not well known beyond his completion of Schnittke’s ninth symphony and one who had never before composed an opera, it is fairly clear the project was devised as bait to entice McBurney to direct an opera. For it was Audi, as director of the Almeida theatre, who sponsored the rise to prominence of McBurney’s Theatre de Complicite. McBurney has long since been a byword for highoctane, audience-embracing theatre, but he has hitherto refused all attempts to work in an opera house. Audi should be congratulated for winning him over for this ambitious Nederlandse Opera and ENO co-production.

Part of the temptation, from McBurney’s point of view, probably lay in having the chance to work with a composer with flexible ideas about what constitutes an opera. McBurney insisted on workshopping the score, sending the composer back to his drawing board several times before agreeing the final result. The production is well engineered. The simple sets are structured by the projection of interior and exterior backgrounds onto a large, moveable screen, which lends further dynamism to the fast-moving action. The dog is a puppet, modelled on Gioacometti’s “Dog” (1951), and animated by up to four puppeteers. There are also puppet cats, and a litany of directorial quirks which render the human characters more and more puppet-like; an air of hectic visual excitement prevails.

The best idea, though, comes from Raskatov, who gives two voices to Sharik the dog. The first – the only genuinely lyrical voice in the opera – is a counter-tenor, charged with representing Sharik’s inner life and nobly sung by Andrew Watts. The second is taken by the soprano Elena Vassilieva (the composer’s wife) who represents Sharik’s canine voice by growling and screeching through a megaphone. It’s a brilliant touch, the comic value of which is amplified by the way the growls rip through the rest of the musical texture and disrupt our ability to locate Sharik in the swirl of bodies pursuing the puppet. When Sharik the dog becomes Sharikov the man, the two voices are replaced by a single tenor. Peter Hoare, last heard as Gregor in ENO’s Makropulos Case, echoes his character’s bivocal past, and brings great energy to his portrayal of a man whose craving for dignity and sense of moral freedom are undercut by the irrepressible animal desire to snap at flees and chase cats. But even Hoare cannot prevent the musical and dramatic interest from evaporating in the second act when, in the absence of the puppet dog and with a great deal of story still to be got through, the evening’s pace slows to a congested crawl.

Among the other singers, Steven Page as Professor Preobrazhensky, who watches horrified as his creation tears to shreds the trappings of his haut-bourgeois existence, deserves praise for tempering some unwieldy writing with flashes of wit. And the orchestra, under the direction of Garry Walker, do what they can to hold down the rest of Raskatov’s protean, turbulent score. But the music, though peppered with references to sources as diverse as Wagner and Rossini, lacks a sense of autonomous direction and except for the passage that concludes Act One – in which ominous themes in the brass build to a dark and brooding climax during the transplant operation – never seems to generate its own authentic energy. For any opera, even one as unorthodox as this, such a flaw is hard to overlook.

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