24 Apr 2017

Dutch National Opera revives deliciously dark satire A Dog’s Heart

Is A Dog’s Heart even an opera? It is sung by opera singers to live music. Alexander Raskatov’s score, however, is secondary to the incredible stage visuals. Whatever it is, actor/director Simon McBurney’s first stab at opera is fantastic theatre. Its revival at Dutch National Opera, where it premiered in 2010, is hugely welcome.

Soviet censorship nixed the publication of Mikhail Bulgakov's 1925 satirical novella, Heart of a Dog, on which Cesare Mazzonis based his libretto. Its plot, in which an eminent professor transplants a man’s pituitary gland and testicles into a scraggy stray dog, is an allegory of the foisting of Communist ideology on Russian society. Professor Preobrazhensky (his name is related to the word “transformation”) wants to rejuvenate the dog, Sharik. But instead of just perking up, Sharik starts becoming human, eventually transforming into Sharikov. This rude, lascivious menace turns the professor, his assistant Dr. Bormenthal, and their servants into nervous wrecks. Further galling the professor's life is Shvonder, his apartment building’s Head of the Residents’ Committee. He tries to shrink the professor's living space and gives Sharikov a job ridding the city of stray cats. When Sharikov's lying, befouling and sexual incontinence get out of control, the professor reverses the transplant, turning him back into an agreeable dog.

a_dogs_heart_17_182.pngScene from A Dog’s Heart

McBurney's staging, revived under Josie Baxter’s supervision, visually realizes the great divide between the professor, ensconced in his gold-and-white rooms, and the grey-clad proletarian masses he despises. Preobrazhensky, who dresses for dinner and enjoys fine wine and Italian opera, has to endure Shvonder and his workers droning Soviet hymns. By means of an enormous wall that slides backwards and forwards, the action moves from room to room or out onto the snowy streets. The wall also serves as a screen for projecting footage in 1920s Russian style. Every aspect of this darkly hilarious production, from prop to personage, is purposefully choreographed. It is difficult to decide which performance is more fascinating: Sharik the puppet dog and his four handlers using bunraku, a Japanese puppetry technique, or tenor Peter Hoare as the unmistakably canine Sharikov. Although the handlers are visible all the time, Sharik slinks, leaps and drools so naturally, that one forgets all about them. Hoare is so uninhibitedly feral that when Bormenthal wants to kill him, the audience sympathizes.

The cast, led by a commanding Sergei Leiferkus as the professor, is uniformly convincing. Baritone Ville Rusanen was a vocally excellent Bormenthal and bass Gennady Bezzubenkov a hair-raisingly sinister, string-pulling Big Boss. Only Hoare and the dog, however, could compete with the brilliant stage business. Some of the briefest scenes are the best, such as a dream sequence in which Sharikov embarrasses Preobrazhensky in front of his colleagues with a lewd song. The two operations also stand out — one comical, using shadow theatre, the second alarmingly gory. Besides moving like clockwork, the staging is deliciously illustrative, with cats swinging from the chandelier (more puppet wizardry) and pink monkey ovaries bobbing in green fluid.

a_dogs_heart_17_218.pngFilipp Filippovitsj (Sergei Leiferkus), Poppenspelers, Bormenthal (Ville Rusanen) and Sjarikov (Peter Hoare)

Raskatov's angular score bravely extends the satirical operatic legacy of Dmitri Shostakovich (The Nose) and Alfred Schnittke ( Life with an Idiot), applying the same polystylistic idiom. However, unlike the staging, the score does not have a clear narrative. It supports and punctuates, rather than recounts. Raskatov creates a myriad sound effects and impressions by supplementing the traditional orchestra with, among others, a saxophone family, a balalaika, an electric guitar, a harpsichord and percussion galore. The Netherlands Chamber Orchestra under Martyn Brabbins adeptly evoked the plentiful flavors, which, alas, do not amount to an intriguing three-course dinner. The score’s strongest point is that it assigns each character a recognizable vocal style. Sharik has two voices, sometimes singing together: Nasty Sharik, soprano Elena Vassilieva growling into a megaphone, and Nice Sharik, plaintive countertenor Andrew Watts. Like his predecessors, Raskatov follows Russian speech rhythms, but his vocal means are limited in variation.

a_dogs_heart_17_307.pngFilipp Filippovitsj (Sergei Leiferkus) & Bormenthal (Ville Rusanen) and Sjarikov (Peter Hoare)

After a while, three main styles emerge. The men either huff in staccato syllables or repeat legato phrases in short ariosos, while the women shriek out notes with agonizing intervals. Alexey Sulimov whined efficaciously as killjoy Comrade Shvonder. Elena Vassilieva, Nasty Sharik, doubled as Darya the cook, who mostly reached for top notes or fished for bottom ones. As the excitable maid Zina, Nancy Allen Lundy’s chief task was to squeal out improbably high notes. Sharikov’s fiancée, soprano Sophie Desmars, suffered in jagged coloratura, then sang some warming-up vocal exercises. Raskatov's intentions and orchestral colors are thought through, and it is a shame that his score is not more distinguished. Some excerpts, such as the screaming duet between Darya and Zina, are so heavy-handed as to miss their caricatural point entirely. The music works best when decorating speech or escalating tension with whiplashing dissonant chords. If one doesn’t think of A Dog's Heart as an opera, the score is a highly effective soundtrack for a singular, special piece of theatre.

Jenny Camilleri

Cast and production information:

Professor Filipp Filippovich Preobrazhensky: Sergei Leiferkus; Ivan Arnoldovich Bormenthal: Ville Rusanen; Poligraf Poligrafovich Sharikov: Peter Hoare; Darya Petrovna/Voice of Nasty Sharik: Elena Vassilieva; Zina: Nancy Allen Lundy; Shvonder: Alexey Sulimov; Vyasemskaya/Voice of Nice Sharik: Andrew Watts; Big Boss/Fyodor/Paperboy: Gennady Bezzubenkov; Sharikov’s Fiancée: Sophie Desmars; First Patient/Provocateur: Alasdair Elliot; Second Patient: Annett Andriesen; Proletarians: Sophie Desmars, Andrew Watts, Alexey Sulimov, Piotr Micinski; Detective: Piotr Micinski. Director & Choreographer: Simon McBurney (revival supervised by Josie Baxter); Set Design: Michael Levine; Costume Design: Christina Cunningham; Lighting Design: Paul Anderson; Video: Finn Ross; Puppetry: Blind Summit Theatre (Mark Down, Nick Barnes); Movement: Toby Sedgwick. Conductor: Martyn Brabbins. Dutch National Opera Chorus, Netherlands Chamber Orchestra. Seen at Dutch National Opera, Amsterdam, on Saturday, 22 nd April 2017.