The premire of A Dogs Heart in Amsterdam earlier this year made waves even in the press in this country, so it was no surprise that not an empty seat was in sight for the opening night of the ENO staging of Simon McBurneys production.
The plot, following closely Mikhail Bulgakovs original novel of 1925, tells of an eminent Moscow professor who takes in a stray dog and implants human organs into the animal, in order to test his theories of rejuvenation. However, things do not go according to plan: the dog transforms fully into a human, and his uncontrollably uncouth behaviour (an effect of the character of the dead man from whom the transplanted organs were taken) causes untold chaos and threatens to end the professors career. Finally, at the end of his tether, the professor seizes his creation and reverses the operation, restoring things to normal.
Alexander Raskatovs score is characterised by distinctive modules of sound associated with characters and themes, but which undergo subtle and rapid modulation as they are repeated. He also recalls Russian musical history, with references to Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Schnittke as well as heavy, menacing brass band sounds. The overall effect is mesmerising: numerous vocal techniques and the constantly morphing orchestral sound-world obscure neither harmonies nor text, and the whole thing is eminently listenable-to Ill certainly be buying a recording, if one is made (which I hope it will be), as soon as it comes out.
McBurneys conception is flawless, showing us clearly that Bulgakovs novel is not just an attack on the concept of The Bolshevik Man, its most obvious reading, but has many other layers subtly woven in. Thus, Steven Pages stentorian (and Omar Sharif lookalike) portrayal of Professor Preobrazhensky always maintains an air of indifference and condescension towards those he considers to be less intelligent or of a lower class than he (his own, well-treated servants excepted), even throughout the mayhem that comes close to overwhelming him. Some interesting sub-strands of Bulgakovs original plot have been omitted for reasons of conciseness, but this tautening means that there is never a sluggish moment in the action, nothing that is either redundant or not saying enough.
The partnership of ENO, McBurneys Complicit experimental theatre company and the puppeteers of Blind Summit Theatre has created an incredible visual feast. Michael Levines endlessly adaptable set underwent innumerable changes before our eyes, creating not only the various scenes in and around the professors flat (including a cat chase, a flooded bathroom, and two bloody surgical operations), but also, with changes of rake and angles of backdrops, reflecting the paranoia and mental distress that every character undergoes. Sharik the dog was magically brought to life by puppeteers Robin Beer, Finn Caldwell, Josie Daxter and Mark Down, and their months of work in studying canine movement and anatomy created such a believable dog that one couldnt help but be drawn to the skeletal figure that they manoeuvred into every conceivable contortion, so skilful and unobtrusive were his handlers.
The cast is uniformly excellent: Leigh Melroses impressively sung, alternately solid and near-collapsed Bormenthal, the professors assistant, was in many ways the main foil to Peter Hoares thoroughly crazed and creepy Sharikov, the man-dog, a single movement from whom immediately seized the attention on-stage. Elena Vassilieva and Andrew Watts, while providing the unpleasant and pleasant voices, respectively, of Sharik in his more-or-less canine states, demonstrated a huge range of virtuosity and extended vocal techniques as they trotted and rolled around the stage in tandem with the puppeteers.
The ENO orchestra were expertly marshalled by Garry Walker into a performance of harmonic heft and rhythmic agility, and the only thing that left me less than wholly satisfied distinctly puzzled, in fact was the odd set of robotic leaps and postures executed by Nancy Allen Lundy, in the role of Zina, the professors maid, which seemed to have little to do with, and did little to improve, her excellent, acrobatic vocal performance.
During the interval I heard one of my neighbours remark that This isnt opera its just entertainment. (He did admit to enjoying the experience, though.) The two certainly arent mutually exclusive, in my opinion, and entertainment is always desirable in a trip to the opera yes, the audience laughed heartily at the many visual jokes, but that didnt mean the production was just a rag-bag of empty, superficial party tricks. (Dont let the unapologetic, in-your-face outbursts of swearing put you off, either.)
On the contrary, A Dogs Heart is as profound and challenging a nights entertainment as youre likely to enjoy, whose ultimate message, conveyed by a thrilling and enthralling score, a magnificent production and a host of outstanding performances, stands as a chilling warning to us all, and to people of all eras: inside all of us is an animal, just waiting to be released. Buy a ticket to ENO now to see how bad that might be…