A Dog’s Heart, English National Opera, ENO at the London Coliseum, November 2010

It’s 113 pages in my translation — Bulgakov’s novel I mean — and I wondered how it would convert to an opera. But it did, and it works, brilliantly.

The Dog in the Apartment, all photos by Stephen Cummiskey

A Dog’s Heart is a striking exposé of the massive Soviet experiment instigated by Lenin and Trotsky. Bulgakov tells of a senior physician, eminent for rejuvenating the bodily functions of his patients, who picks up a stray dog. The animal, woefully undernourished and mistreated, is ready to die of hunger in the winter snow, but the medical professor takes him back to his apartment and treats him well. When a young man dies in an accident, they harvest his pituitary gland and testicles, and implant them in the dog. The result is a new man, a rude, aggressive, dishonest man who creates havoc. The good and peaceful dog has become a menace to a society that welcomed him but unwisely tried to turn him into something else. It was an experiment with results that its creator had not been prepared for. His life has been turned upside down, and there appears to be no solution.

Professor and Dog

It may sound an unpromising subject for an opera, and I wondered whether the result would convey all the bizarre aspects of the story. But it did! The composer, Alexander Raskatov has created a multi-faceted ‘polystylistic’ score that does justice to the serious nature of the professor, the wild nature of the dog/man, and the insidiously destructive nature of the new regime. Raskatov has not previously been a well-known composer, having spent several years reconstructing Schnittke’s ninth symphony after that composer’s death in 1998, but this opera — his first — will surely put him on the map. It was first produced earlier this year at the Dutch National Opera, and will apparently move to the Mariinsky in St. Petersburg next year. The libretto in Russian by Cesare Mazzonis hews closely to Bulgakov’s original story, and is heard here in translation by Martin Pickard.

The production by Simon McBurney — a collaboration between Complicite, Dutch National, and the ENO — is riveting. There is perpetual action and movement without in any way detracting or distracting from the music, and the puppetry by the Blind Summit Theatre is excellent. The dog comes to life and elicits our sympathy, and the set designs by Michael Levine give just the right atmosphere, helped by Paul Anderson’s lighting and the costumes by Christina Cunningham. I loved the operation on the dog being done by silhouettes, the wacky dance movements by Zina the maid, and the projection designs by Finn Ross. This is McBurney’s first opera direction and I hope he does more.

The new man (left) creates havoc

For those who want to read something other than a mere synopsis of Bulgakov’s magical satire — which was written in 1925 but banned by the Soviet authorities until 1987 — the programme contains an excellent essay by James Meek. He refers to Bulgakov’s ability to shift the narrative perspective, which I think is well reflected in Raskatov’s polystylism, and he gives an excellent summing up of the hubris in the great Soviet experiment, and its comparison to the medical experiment carried out by the professor and his assistant Dr. Bormanthal. As the professor says, “These hands have turned a harmless friendly dog into a monster”. A monster who shouts about his ‘rights’, like a yobbo taunting a respected teacher, and comes out with Soviet expressions such as ‘bourgeois filth’ when referring to cats. What can the professor do about it all? If you haven’t read the book I won’t spoil it, but as the professor says, almost at the end, “Animals revert to their own nature”.

Man becomes Dog again

The music was beautifully conducted by Garry Walker, and the singing was excellent from the whole cast. It was a team effort, and I find it difficult to single out individuals, but Steven Page as the professor carried the role off to perfection. Dr. Bormenthal was well portrayed by Leigh Melrose, Zina the maid by Nancy Allen Lundy, Sharikov the awful man/dog brilliantly played by Peter Hoare, and the dog’s voice was shared by counter-tenor Andrew Watts and soprano Elena Vassilieva, who also sang the cook.

If you want something a little spicier than Covent Garden’s new production of an opera they have not produced for over a hundred years — I refer to Adriana Lecouvreur — then go to this new ENO production. Instead of the violets in Cilea’s plot for Adriana — a late romantic device that doesn’t convince — we have a scientific experiment that serves as a great metaphor for all pseudo-scientific attempts to create a brave new society, and in that sense carries a timeless message. This is the type of production that the English National Opera does very well indeed, and they have excelled themselves. Congratulations.

Further performances are scheduled for Nov. 24, 26, 30 and Dec. 2, 4 — for details click here.

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