Saturday 27 November 2010

‘Look, he’s smoking’

A Dog’s Heart, ENO, Coliseum, London

This is a new opera, based on a satirical novel that was controversial enough to be banned in Soviet Russia before it was due to be published in 1926. Bulgakov’s story of a scientist who inadvertently turns a dog into a man wasn’t published until 1987. This is the first production of the opera, which opened in Amsterdam in June 2010.

So how well does an 80-year-old satire, aimed at a society that has since disintegrated, work here and now? There’s plenty to relish. Alexander Raskatov’s music is sparky, challenging, experimental with texture and melodic line. The visual staging, as you’d expect from Simon McBurney of Complicite, is fluid, dynamic, evocative and funny. The performances are strong, engaging, energetic.

We start in a snowstorm. A dog’s skeleton lies on the big, empty ramp of a stage. Workers muffled in warm clothes move slowly across, gather around – then the dog slowly starts to move under their hands. Three puppeteers and two singers give life to the dog, Sharik. One voice, distorted through a megaphone, barks out the simple thoughts of a dog-brain; ‘I’m dying, the blizzard!’ But counter-tenor Andrew Watts is the lyrical inner voice of the dog. When Professor Preobrazhensky lures him towards a lighted door with food, it’s a beautiful love song: ‘It’s a sausage!’ Is this the true inner nature of the dog, or human thoughts we’re projecting onto a simple beast struggling to survive a Russian winter?

A Dog’s Heart at De Nederlandse Opera, Amsterdam (photo: Monika Rittershaus)

One problem with the show is that none of the characters is truly sympathetic. The Professor’s servants and his assistant, Dr Bormenthal, are appealingly flawed, but we don’t share enough of their inner lives to truly identify with them. The dog is.. well, a dog. The Professor seems to use his medical know-how only to charge enormous sums for dodgy ‘rejuvenation’ treatments using monkey glands, and to swing special privileges with an anonymous bureaucrat. And the House Committee, who come round to try and expropriate some of the professor’s huge apartment, are at best officious and at worst vindictive.

In short, there’s little sign that living in post-revolutionary Russia is creating better people, and that’s one target of Bulgakov’s fantastic allegory. Because the professor transplants human testes and pituitary gland into the dog, with unexpected effects.

In a splendid and exhilarating sequence Dr Bormenthal is wheeled to and fro across the stage as he types, while his experimental notes appear above and the puppet dog gradually transforms in anarchic scenes with the professor and his white-coated staff. The dog’s bowed, spindly hind legs are the last thing to change, as his dog’s head becomes a grotesque human face, his front paws hands. ‘He even laughs now’, they sing, ‘Look, he’s smoking’. ‘I need a cigarette,’ sings the man-dog, in his own voice now. And at the end of the first act he leaps, naked and human, onto the table.

A Dog’s Heart at De Nederlandse Opera, Amsterdam (photo: Monika Rittershaus)

But having hurtled through this transformation, it’s not clear where the story has to go. Sharikov the man is uncouth and sweary. He still chases cats, in a sequence that shows off the puppeteers’ skills far better than the self-consciously over-animated dog. (‘They didn’t need three puppeteers for the dog,’ said my companion. ‘What they lost in subtlety of movement, they would have gained in being able to actually see the dog.’). Sharikov is philistine and lecherous, greedy, fearful and selfish.

In short, he’s what you’d expect from a dog, which makes it odd that the professor seems to think he’s done the dog a disservice by adding human elements. ‘I made that good-natured dog into a horrifying human being,’ he cries. Having a bleak view of humanity does not necessarily make a work of art bad, of course. For an audience, the lack of structure is more of a problem, as the second half doesn’t progress in any clear or dynamic way through Sharikov’s journey from dog to state employee, or the professor’s from arrogant scientist to desperate penitent. And even so, the music, the visuals and the comedy are plenty to make it a worthwhile evening.

But while there seem to be boldly signalled symbolic moments, it’s not at all clear what message we’re meant to be taking away.  Today’s Britain – or Netherlands – are not 1920s Russia. Our petty-minded apparatchiks are more likely to be haranguing us about recycling than demanding we share our spacious apartment with a homeless family, and we’re unlikely (touching wood) to face prison if we don’t comply with the bureaucrats. Our scientists are not trying to create dog-man hybrids. In fact, they’re at pains to reassure us that they have no hubris, that all their experiments are regulated and transparent, and that we should eschew quack treatments aimed at restoring our sex lives.

So does it make any sense to perform A Dog’s Heart as satire? Would it work better if the surreal story were performed at face value, leaving a contemporary audience to draw their own parallels or see it as a historic piece? There are themes that outlive the specifics of 1920s Moscow, questions about what defines us as human, for example. But in the frenetic vision of an apartment being gradually reduced to chaos by a foulmouthed ex-canine, there is little space to contemplate them.

The final chorus of proletarians is backed by projected images that come up to the present day. One placard reads ‘Smash BNP and EDL’. They sing directly to the audience, through the same megaphones that distorted Sharik’s barking in the opening scene. If there are words, it’s impossible to hear them. If there’s a meaning, it’s lost in the noise.

Till 4 December 2010


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