It’s a dog’s life

 My unearned London vacation continued last Thursday with A Dog’s Heart at the English National Opera.  It sounded intriguing: production with theater company Complicite, source material from Bulgakov. But the composer, Alexander Raskatov, was an unknown quantity to me. Turns out this was bad, because while this opera some things going for it, the score isn’t one of them, alas.

Alexander Raskatov, A Dog’s Heart. English National Opera, 2/12/2010.  Production directed by Simon McBurney, conducted by Garry Walker with Steven Page (Professor Filipp Filippovich Preobrazhensky), Peter Hoare (Sharikov), Elena Vassilieva (Shaik’s unpleasant voice/Darya), Andrew Watts (Shark’s pleasant voice), Leigh Melrose (Bormenthal), Nancy Allen Lundy (Zina), Blund Summit Theatre (dog puppetry)

A Dog’s Heart was composed by Raskatov to a libretto by Cesare Mazzoni after the Bulgakov novella of the same title.  The source material is wonderful for an opera, a tale of a mad doctor/professor who in an unwise decision transforms a good-natured stray dog into an exceptionally intemperate man via the transplant of some, uh, vital organs.  Hijinks, as they say, ensue.  The setting is 1920’s Russia, and the absurdism, Soviet twists (telltale obsession with real estate, committees, informants, etc.) and series of short, episodic scenes, as well as some elements of the musical style, are strongly reminiscent of Shostakovich’s The Nose.  Like that work, the libretto is a “sung play” setting of the Dargomyzhsky sort, consisting of massive amounts of dialogue without many ensembles and only a few extended solo sections.  (Think Les parapluies de Cherbourg, Russian style.)  The similarities to The Nose loom large enough to maybe say that A Dog’s Heart is derivative.

Raskatov is best-known for his completion of Schnittke’s Symphony No. 9, and his own mixture of styles recalls Schnittke as well.  Unfortunately, I could never grasp a unique voice under the collage of Soviet anthems, jazz, and Russian folk music.  The music is maddeningly disjunct, hardly ever lyrical, and changes texture and mood so quickly that I felt I never had a grip on it, nor could I figure out the way the music related to the dramatic situations.  Most of it is not tonal, though Raskatov has an odd tendency to turn straightforwardly tonal at the most dramatic climaxes.  Things settle down a bit in Act 2 with a Shostakovich-ish passacaglia, but I still have no idea what Raskatov is about musically.  If there is a characteristic sound to this opera it is, alas, the combination of a flexatone and a farting trombone.  That makes it sound much more entertaining than it is, the music rarely picks up on the wit of the text.

I suspect the poor text setting was a major impediment.  The original libretto was in Russian (though the premiere was at De Nederlandse Opera), and while Martin Pickard’s English translation is satisfyingly immediate and vulgar, the emphasis and rhythm of the text enjoy only a tenuous connection with that of the music.  The text proceeds slowly, and the surtitles were much appreciated because it is not easy to understand.  Few characters acquire a unique musical profile, and some of the music associated with one is recapitulated by another with no clear dramatic intent.  The most distinctive voice is the obligatory screechy New Opera coloratura soprano, here a maid who is given a particularly punishingly stratospheric part (Nancy Allen Lundy sang with flair).  She’s got a character, but someone write a new opera that doesn’t involve a lady hanging around solely above the staff, please!

The inventive and very precisely choreographed production, directed by Complicite director Simon McBurney is the best thing going here.  The set combines projections of Soviet scenery on a backdrop (and sometimes also on a front scrim) with an otherwise mostly-bare stage.  Sharik, pre-transformation, is represented by an endearing puppet dog from Blind Summit Theatre (you may remember them as Trouble in the Met’s Butterfly–that production originated at ENO).  His “pleasant voice” is sung by a countertenor, Andrew Watts, his “unpleasant voice” by a mezzo, Elena Vassileva, barking and squealing through a megaphone.  The two sound quite similar in timbre; the main difference is the megaphone and musical style rather than the voices themselves.  As a foul-mouthed balalaika-playing man with a taste for vodka, Sharik becomes Sharikov and is sung by tenor Peter Hoare, who makes an outrageous, overpoweringly energetic character who shakes up the slow proceedings considerably.

Unfortunately the production is content to be merely absurd, and while I don’t mind that it keeps the symbolism open-ended, I wish it had done something more with the piece’s politics.  Its view of the Soviet society of the Professor’s apartment committee and Sharikov’s employment is underdeveloped and vague, and prevents things from really acquiring consequence and gravity.  The chorus mostly lingers stage left in a straight line, and the production never really creates a society beyond the setting of the professor’s apartment.  Despite the tightness of the staging and some strong scenes–an intriguing beginning mixing the two voices of the dog, a parade of strange patients at the Professor’s office, and most of the scenes involving Sharikov the man–the evening tended to drag.  Singing was good and the orchestra dealt handily with the asymmetry of Raskatov’s score and its strange sounds.  It’s not like I could have heard if things had gotten off but it all sounded very confident.  But without music I can enjoy, I’m afraid I can’t call this one a success with me.

Possibly the most amusing thing I heard all evening was this dialogue in the ladies’ room before the show:
“Tom was so disappointing.  Jen said to expect a stunner.”
“The best I can say is that he has very good skin.”


Photos copyright Stephen Cummiskey/English National Opera

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  1. Raskatov's main cclaim to fame is copmpleting Schnittke. Go figure. On the othet hand the music was ideal for purpose. It was pedigree Bitzer. Bitsa this, bitsa that….