Saturday, 20 November 2010

A Dog's Heart, ENO

The first night of Complicite/ENO's A Dog's Heart was well-received. This short video (from the original production at De Nederlanse Opera earlier in the year) gives you a flavour of what it's about:



Alexander Raskatov's opera is based on a 1925 novel by Mikhail Bulgakov. ENO describe it as 'absurdist', Simon McBurney (dirctor of Complicite) as a 'satire'. It's both these things. Imagine a political version of Frankenstein played for laughs and you're basically there. The story is classically bleak. The dog is taken in by a politically connected professor who likes to stitch bits of different species together. The dog, Sharik, gets the testes and pituitary of a man; this transplant causes a basic metamorphosis into a coarse, needy human, Sharikov. Eventually the Professor can suffer no longer the trouble that Sharikov is causing, through a mixture of bestial impulse and self-pitying, and replaces his original organs. This tale doesn't pan out like David Cronenberg's The Fly, but rather with a more claustrophobic sense of inescapable social oppression.

McBurney uses the puppetry company Blind Summit to give life to a textile dog in a manner that may be familiar to those who have seen the National Theatre's Warhorse. It's a complicated but nonetheless convincing stage presence alongside its two voices. Yes, two - I initially thought internal and external but the programme suggests pleasant and unpleasant (which strikes me as closer to Family Guy's Brian on one of his drinking binges). Pleasant is the countertenor Andrew Watts (manifestly on a long run of good form) and unpleasant Elena Vassilieva, contorted with a megaphone (as in the clip). I liked this device very much (not least the idea that a megaphone, rather than amplifying, distorts - shouting becoming uglier not louder).

The manipulative doctor is played by Stephen Page, a singing actor of high all-round calibre. His is a commanding presence, a charismatic, iron centre to the production, entirely in keeping with the supremely self-confident but slightly unhinged professor. Around him revolve a small group of lackeys, either servants or nurses depending on his whim. Most notable is the maid Zina (Nancy Allen Lundy), who rushes about, twitching and singing in squeaky, pontillist music, as if having had some sort of transplant herself, perhaps from a mouse. Sharikov himself is sung by Peter Hoare who has impressed me no end in the last year (Wozzeck's Hauptmann* for Esa-Pekka Salonen, Albert Gregor for ENO) and really owns the show in this production, charging about the stage like a Chekovian buffoon with a hard-on.

Raskatov's music is functionally modernist. Rather than being an entity in itself, it provides a clear support for the play. There's a bit of speaking (Graeme Danby as the Grand Inquisitor-a-like Big Boss) and, as mentioned, id-coloratura for the semi-bestial objects of Shakirov's affection Zina and a wonderful cameo from Sophie Desmars, who ill-advisedly takes Sharikov up on an engagment proposal. Garry Walker conducts with clarity, although the orchestration doesn't need internal direction, being a spare affair (oddly there are a couple of moments in which snatches of melody bloom from the pit including one that sounds as if it's straight out of Star Wars. I wouldn't have mentioned it, only it seems too incongruous to have been unintentional, given the lyric desert of the rest of the music). I particularly liked the use of an amplified guitar, a liquid yet mechanical colour which fitted perfectly with the Eadward Muybridge (? I assume) Animal Locomotion films of dog and man.

McBurney has preserved the political allegory in the play. The chorus' demand for parity, largely in trying to occupy the professor's excessive domicile, end abruptly in an exchange of high-level phone calls. By the end everyone winds up behaving like the poor beasts that have been the centre of the show. What's interesting though is that, for all its counter-revolutionary, samizdat scorn, this plays equally well as a critique of our current political situation. At the close of the opera, the dog talks to itself (in its pleasant voice) telling itself it's been 'lucky'. It might as well be telling itself that it's 'never had it so good'.

*Indeed the Wozzeck reference is particularly pertinent; the professor begins his first domestic overtures towards his subject, Sharik(ov) with vocalising that includes humming, like the Doktor in Berg. Later in the scene we are met by someone else with designs on Sharikov, the communist apparatchik Shvonder, who has the same, high tessitura music as Berg's Hauptmann (and who is also in thrall the the professor's greater charisma, as the Hauptmann is to the Doktor).

UPDATE: At the centre of A Dog's Heart is a puppet dog. A wretched, mangy, skeleton of an animal, it really reminded me of something... and as one or two more on-the-ball reviewers have now pointed out, director Simon McBurney has based it on a Giacometti sculpture:

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