Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Jonathan Miller’s “Così” strikes gold again

When did “concept” become a dirty word? In the world of opera, the rot set in innocently, gradually.

Tucson Desert Song Festival Presents Artists from the Met and Arizona Opera

The Tucson Desert Song Festival consists of three weekends of vocal music in orchestral, chamber, choral, and solo formats along with related lectures and master classes.

Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle at the Barbican

Two great operas come from the year 1911 - Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier and Bela Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle. Both are masterpieces, but they are very different kinds of operas and experienced quite asymmetric performance histories.

Puccini’s Tosca at the Royal Opera House

Now on its ninth revival, Jonathan Kent’s classic Tosca for Covent Garden is a study in art, beauty and passion but also darkness, power and empire. Part of the production’s lasting greatness, and contemporary value, is that it looks inwards towards the malignancy of a great empire (in this case a Napoleonic one), whilst looking outward towards a city-nation in terminal decline (Rome).

ROH Return to the Roundhouse

Opera transcends time and place. An anonymous letter, printed with the libretto of Monteverdi’s Le nozze d’Enea con Lavinia and written two years before his death, assures the reader that Monteverdi’s music will continue to affect and entrance future generations:

London Schools Symphony Orchestra celebrates Bernstein and Holst anniversaries

One recent survey suggested that in 1981, the average age of a classical concertgoer was 36, whereas now it is 60-plus. So, how pleasing it was to see the Barbican Centre foyers, cafes and the Hall itself crowded with young people, as members of the London Schools Symphony Orchestra prepared to perform with soprano Louise Alder and conductor Sir Richard Armstrong, in a well-balanced programme that culminated with an ‘anniversary’ performance of Holst’s The Planets.

Salome at the Royal Opera House

In De Profundis, his long epistle to ‘Dear Bosie’, Oscar Wilde speaks literally ‘from the depths’, incarcerated in his prison cell in Reading Gaol. As he challenges the young lover who has betrayed him and excoriates Society for its wrong and unjust laws, Wilde also subjects his own aesthetic ethos to some hard questioning, re-evaluating a life lived in avowal of the amorality of luxury and beauty.

In the Beginning ... Time Unwrapped at Kings Place

Epic, innovative and bold, Haydn’s The Creation epitomises the grandeur and spirit of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment.

The Pearl Fishers at Lyric Opera of Chicago

For its recent production of Georges Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles Lyric Opera of Chicago assembled an ideal cast of performers who blend well into an imaginative and colorful production.

New Cinderella SRO in San Jose

Alma Deutscher’s Cinderella is most remarkable for one reason and one reason alone: It was composed by a 12-year old girl.

La Cenerentola in Lyon

Like Stendhal when he first saw Rossini’s Cenerentola in Trieste in 1823, I was left stone cold by Rossini’s Cendrillon last night in Lyon. Stendhal complained that in Trieste nothing had been left to the imagination. As well, in Lyon nothing, absolutely nothing was left to the imagination.

Messiah, who?: The Academy of Ancient Music bring old and new voices together

Christmas isn’t Christmas without a Messiah. And, at the Barbican Hall, the Academy of Ancient Music reminded us why … while never letting us settle into complacency.

The Golden Cockerel Bedazzles in Amsterdam

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s fairy tale The Golden Cockerel was this holiday season’s ZaterdagMatinee operatic treat at the Concertgebouw. There was real magic to this concert performance, chiefly thanks to Vasily Petrenko’s dazzling conducting and the enchanting soprano Venera Gimadieva.

Mahler Das Lied von der Erde, London - Rattle, O'Neill, Gerhaher

By pairing Mahler Das Lied von der Erde (Simon O'Neill, Christian Gerhaher) with Strauss Metamorphosen, Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra were making a truly powerful statement. The Barbican performance last night was no ordinary concert. This performance was extraordinary because it carried a message.

David McVicar's Rigoletto returns to the ROH

This was a rather disconcerting performance of David McVicar’s 2001 production of Rigoletto. Not only because of the portentous murkiness with which Paule Constable’s lighting shrouds designer Michael Vale’s ramshackle scaffolding; nor, the fact that stage and pit frequently seemed to be tugging in different directions. But also, because some of the cast seemed rather out of sorts.

Verdi Otello, Bergen - Stuart Skelton, Latonia Moore, Lester Lynch

Verdi Otello livestream from Norway with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Edward Garner with a superb cast, led by Stuart Skelton, Latonia Moore, and Lester Lynch and a good cast, with four choirs, the Bergen Philharmonic Chorus, the Edvard Grieg Kor, Collegiûm Mûsicûm Kor, the Bergen pikekor and Bergen guttekor (Children’s Choruses) with chorus master Håkon Matti Skrede. The Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra was founded in 1765, just a few years after the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra : Scandinavian musical culture has very strong roots, and is thriving still. Tucked away in the far north, Bergen may be a hidden treasure, but, as this performance proved, it's world class.

Temple Winter Festival: the Gesualdo Six

‘Gaudete, gaudete!’ - Rejoice, rejoice! - was certainly the underlying spirit of this lunchtime concert at Temple Church, part of the 5th Temple Winter Festival. Whether it was vigorous joy or peaceful contemplation, the Gesualdo Six communicate a reassuring and affirmative celebration of Christ’s birth in a concert which fused medieval and modern concerns, illuminating surprising affinities.

Mark Padmore and Mitsuko Uchida at the Wigmore Hall

The journey is always the same, and never the same. As Ian Bostridge remarks, at the end of his prize-winning book Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession, when the wanderer asks Der Leiermann, “Will you play your hurdy-gurdy to my songs?”, in the final song of Winterreise, the ‘crazy but logical procedure would be to go right back to the beginning of the whole cycle and start all over again’.

Turandot in San Francisco

San Francisco Opera wrapped up its 95th fall opera season just now with a bang up Turandot. It has been a season of hopeful hints that this venerable company may regain some of its former luster.

Daniel Michieletto's Cav and Pag returns to Covent Garden

It felt rather decadent to be sitting in an opera house at 12pm. Even more so given the passion-fuelled excesses of Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, which might seem rather too sensual and savage for mid-day consumption.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Steven Page as Professor Filipp Filippovich Preobrazhensky [Photo by Stephen Cummiskey courtesy of English National Opera]
23 Nov 2010

A Dog’s Heart, ENO

Three cheers — at the very least — for the English National Opera!

Alexander Raskatov: A Dog’s Heart

Professor Filipp Filippovich Preobrazhensky: Steven Page; Peter Amoldovich Bormenthal: Leigh Melrose; Sharikov: Peter Hoare; Sharik the dog (unpleasant voice): Elena Vassileva; Sharik the dog (pleasant voice): Andrew Watts; Darya Petrovna: Elena Vassileva; Zina: Nancy Allen Lundy; Shvonder: Alasdair Elliott; Vyasemskaya: Andrew Watts; First Patient: Peter Hoare; Second Patient: Frances McCafferty; Provocateur: David Newman; Proletarians: Ella Kirkpatrick, Andrew Watts, Alasdair Elliott, Michael Burke; Fyodor/Newspaper Seller/Big Boss: Graeme Danby; Secretary: Sophie Desmars; Investigator: Matthew Hargreaves; Drunkards: Michael Selby, Christopher Speight. Old Women: Deborah Davison, Jane Reed; Puppeteers: Robin Beer, Finn Caldwell, Josie Dexter, Mark Down. Director, choreographer: Simon McBurney; Set designs: Michael Levine and Luis Carvalho; Costumes: Christina Cunningham; Lighting: Paul Anderson; Movement: Toby Sedgwick; Finn Ross (projections); Director of Puppetry: Blind Summit Theatre — Mark Down and Nick Barnes. Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: Martin Merry); Orchestra of the English National Opera; Garry Walker (conductor). Coliseum, London, Saturday 20 November 2010.

Above: Steven Page as Professor Filipp Filippovich Preobrazhensky

All photos by Stephen Cummiskey courtesy of 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?

DogHeart02.gifPeter 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.

DogHeart03.gifSteven 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.

Mark Berry

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):