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SEEN AND HEARD UK OPERA REVIEW
Raskatov, A Dog's Heart: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera/Garry Walker. London Coliseum 20.11.2010 (CC)
Professor Filipp Filippovich Preobrazhensky - Steven Page
Ivan Arnoldovich Bormenthal - Leigh Melrose
Sharikov, First Patient - Peter Hoare
Sharik, pleasant voice - Andrew Watts
Sharik, unpleasant voice - Elena Vassilieva
Darya Petrovna - Elena Vassilieva
Zina Nancy - Allen Lundy
Shvonder - Alasdair Elliott
Vyasenskaya - Andrew Watts
Second Patient - Frances McCafferty
Provocateur - David Newman
Somehow I had imagined a half-empty house at best for ENO’s production of Raskatov’s A Dog’s Heart. After all, Raskatov (born 1953) is hardly a household name here in the UK (see Bill Kenny’s review of Raskatov’s The Seasons Digest on MusicWeb, though; he is probably known here, if at all, through his completion of Schnittke’s Ninth Symphony, a completion made at the request of Schnittke’s widow).
Bulgakov’s original story A Dog’s Heart had to wait nearly fifty years for publication. It is a masterwork, if not quite on the exalted level of The Master and Margarita (itself set as an opera by York Höller and recorded on Col Legno). It is also short (more novella than novel) and so its extension into a full evening’s opera came as a surprise. Raskatov’s music is not unduly demanding, but his melodic shapes undeniably tend towards the angular, something he uses to his advantage when he transmogrifies worker’s marches to his own ends. Shostakovich-like Passacaglia vies with Webernian angularity, anti-melodic vocal lines and an almost cartoon-like humour to create a mix that is a reflection of the bizarre nature of Bulgakov’s original
The story itself tells of a doctor, Professor Filipp Filippovich Preobrazhensky who, with his assistant Ivan Arnoldovich Bormenthal, implants the sex organs and pituitary gland of a criminal man into a good-hearted mongrel. The results are as chaotic as they are hilarious. The hybrid creature’s vocabulary is drenched in swearwords, his/its behaviour crude. To stage such a tale is a huge challenge, and one to which Raskatov with his cohorts, the group Complicité, librettist Cesare Mazzonis (and translator Martin Pickard) and director Simon McBurney, has risen to laudably.
Preobrazhensky’s house, the scene for much of this parable, is an oasis in which the outside concerns of the Russian proletariat seem unreal. Food is in liberal supply, as is the finest vodka. Like the Doctor in Berg’s Wozzeck, Preobrazhensky is an obsessive. Steven Page has an impressive stage presence that makes his portrayal gripping. Here, his fixation on his idea leads to isolation and conflict with the authorities: Sharikov, the more human version of the dog Sharik, needs papers and yet chases cats (so naturally, he gets a job chasing stray cats for the municipal department). The use of projected Soviet film is undeniably effective, and unsettling.
The staging is gripping throughout. Puppeteers from the Blind Summit Theatre Company animate the shape of Sharik, while two singers express him – a pleasant voice (Andrew Watts, countertenor) and unpleasant one (Elena Vassilieva, soprano).
Peter Hoare is simply superb as Sharikov, creating chaos wherever he goes. Acting meets vocal ability perfectly here. Leigh Melrose’s Bormenthal, too, is well done – he types reports while whizzing from one end of the stage to the other, a human victim of the carriage return. Zina the maid is something of a Zerlina figure, and she was magnificently realised on this occasion by Nancy Allen Lundy. The part is for a soprano with Königen der Nacht tendencies, and Lundy delivered with aplomb. Above all, though, there was a feeling of transcendental company effort, with mesmerising results.
There are, alas, just seven performances (the last is on December 4th), and heaven knows if we’ll get to see this again. Stimulating fare, expertly realised. Well worth going.