23 Nov 2010
A Dog’s Heart, ENO
Three cheers — at the very least — for the English National Opera!
Three cheers — at the very least — for the English National Opera!
‘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?
Peter 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: Gérard Mortier’s parting shot at the Opéra national de Paris, Am Anfang, billed Anselm Kiefer’s installation before Jörg 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.
Steven 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.