Alexander Raskatov, A Dog’s Heart. English National Opera, 2/12/2010. Production directed by Simon McBurney, conducted by Garry Walker with Steven Page (Professor Filipp Filippovich Preobrazhensky), Peter Hoare (Sharikov), Elena Vassilieva (Shaik’s unpleasant voice/Darya), Andrew Watts (Shark’s pleasant voice), Leigh Melrose (Bormenthal), Nancy Allen Lundy (Zina), Blund Summit Theatre (dog puppetry)A Dog’s Heart was composed by Raskatov to a libretto by Cesare Mazzoni after the Bulgakov novella of the same title. The source material is wonderful for an opera, a tale of a mad doctor/professor who in an unwise decision transforms a good-natured stray dog into an exceptionally intemperate man via the transplant of some, uh, vital organs. Hijinks, as they say, ensue. The setting is 1920’s Russia, and the absurdism, Soviet twists (telltale obsession with real estate, committees, informants, etc.) and series of short, episodic scenes, as well as some elements of the musical style, are strongly reminiscent of Shostakovich’s The Nose. Like that work, the libretto is a “sung play” setting of the Dargomyzhsky sort, consisting of massive amounts of dialogue without many ensembles and only a few extended solo sections. (Think Les parapluies de Cherbourg, Russian style.) The similarities to The Nose loom large enough to maybe say that A Dog's Heart is derivative.
I suspect the poor text setting was a major impediment. The original libretto was in Russian (though the premiere was at De Nederlandse Opera), and while Martin Pickard’s English translation is satisfyingly immediate and vulgar, the emphasis and rhythm of the text enjoy only a tenuous connection with that of the music. The text proceeds slowly, and the surtitles were much appreciated because it is not easy to understand. Few characters acquire a unique musical profile, and some of the music associated with one is recapitulated by another with no clear dramatic intent. The most distinctive voice is the obligatory screechy New Opera coloratura soprano, here a maid who is given a particularly punishingly stratospheric part (Nancy Allen Lundy sang with flair). She’s got a character, but someone write a new opera that doesn’t involve a lady hanging around solely above the staff, please!
Possibly the most amusing thing I heard all evening was this dialogue in the ladies’ room before the show:
“Tom was so disappointing. Jen said to expect a stunner.”
“The best I can say is that he has very good skin.”
Photos copyright Stephen Cummiskey/English National Opera