Now here’s a rarity: a new opera with a fluent narrative and a high quotient of humour. There may be a degree of sneering symbolism in Mikhail Bulgakov’s 1925 novel about a dog transformed into a human – the dog being the Russian underclass that doesn’t change its nature when empowered by the revolution – but what gives the story life is its wicked absurdity. That is the quality that shines through Alexander Raskatov’s operatic adaptation, commissioned by Pierre Audi for the Netherlands Opera and premiered there in June (in Russian) in a brilliantly theatrical staging by Simon McBurney.
English National Opera has now brought it to London in a translation by Martin Pickard that adds immediacy and punch. It persuades us that, while A Dog’s Heart may not enlarge on operatic tradition (it owes too much to Shostakovich’s The Nose for that), it is entertaining enough to deserve a wide hearing.
As reported on this page from the Amsterdam premiere, McBurney and his design team (Michael Levine, Christina Cunningham, Paul Anderson and Finn Ross) have found a means of filling out Raskatov’s lean score and animating Bulgakov’s story in a way that makes us believe a puppet-dog is real and a tenor really is a dog.
By keeping the setting in period, with superbly integrated footage of the Soviet proletariat on the march, McBurney lets the symbolism speak without making larger claims for the piece.
The imaginative range of Blind Summit Theatre’s puppetry matches the skill with which Raskatov musicks a dog’s voice through growly squawks (Elena Vassilieva) and countertenor lyricism (Andrew Watts). Steven Page’s Faustian scientist makes a commanding centrepiece, but the real plus of ENO’s version is the assumption of the dog’s “human” form by Peter Hoare, a scratchy, goofy, nakedly uninhibited portrayal that marries vulgarity and pathos.
Garry Walker and the orchestra negotiate Raskatov’s jerky speech-rhythms with aplomb and the ENO ensemble contributes a string of lively cameos.
You don’t come out singing the tunes – there aren’t any – but you do feel bemused, and amused, by the perversities of human behaviour. ()